If Astronomers Can Happily Share The Business With Amateurs, Why Do Some Journalists Get So Upset?

from the inferiority-complex dept

We were recently talking about some of the strawmen complaints that some (though, certainly not all) journalists put up in protesting the idea of "citizen" journalism (which should, more accurately, be called participatory journalism). One of the bigger strawmen is this idea that people think that amateur journalists mean that professional journalists aren't needed. There may be someone out there who does believe it, but most supporters of participatory journalism believe the two work together quite well.

Hulser alerts us to a recent NPR piece about astronomy, where one astronomer talks about the very friendly relationship between professional astronomers and amateur astronomers:
Jupiter's disappearing belt wouldn't have been noticed so quickly without those hobbyists, Beatty says. In fact, in astronomy, the pros depend on the amateurs to sound celestial alerts.

"There aren't enough professionals to keep track of everything going on in the universe all the time," Beatty says. "So in a sense, they rely on amateur astronomers -- who have very good equipment, by the way -- to actually keep an eye on things."
This seems like a much more reasonable approach. It also raises questions about why some journalists feel so threatened by amateurs in their space, but other professions are able to find a happy balance. Hulser suggests
"It's my sense that journalists have a more paternalistic view of themselves in comparison to the "amateurs" i.e. bloggers or commenters, whereas professional astronomers appear to have a longstanding cooperative relationship. Professional astronomers are humble enough to admit they can't see everything themselves and accept the help."
There could be plenty of other reasons, as well. My guess is that there is a general dislike of the "mainstream media" in many circles, so some in the press already feel under attack. So they interpret efforts to boost journalism with help from others as being an aspect of that threat, even if it's really an attempt to help. A secondary issue may have to do with the general standing of newspapers today -- with many in financial trouble, it's natural for those employed by the media to view an influx of others, who can do at least some aspect of their job, as a threat rather than as a resource to be utilized.

All of this does make me wonder, however, if various new journalism business models will need to take this issue into account, in making sure that they don't freak out some group of existing journalists, or if it just makes more sense to plow ahead, and let those who don't like it deal with the issue on their own. It could be something worth exploring as part of the Techdirt Saves* Journalism brainstorming workshop we'll be running on June 16th.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2010 @ 1:00am

    There is also the issue of "journalistic standards." Yes, I know that nobody believes that those exist (or perhaps ever existed) around here. I imagine that most professional journalists do believe that they both exist and existed.

    Professional standards are set when society decides that in a particular field, quality is more important than quantity. High-stakes fields like medicine and law are typical examples. In these fields, practitioners are expected to operate at a higher standard of care than an unregulated market would allow, and are in turn afforded special privileges. One such privilege is exclusive ability to practice (as is the case for medicine and law in the U.S., and engineering in some other countries). For journalists in the U.S., they are afforded special shield laws and such.

    Interestingly, at least in the U.S., even these high-stakes professions are self-regulating. Doctors regulate doctors. Lawyers regulate lawyers. Journalists regulate journalists.

    This bargain is struck on the honor system. There is a constant tension between self-regulating professions and those special protections: is the self-regulation good enough to continue to afford those exclusive protections to professionals in that field? Are the standards high enough, and are they working? If they aren't, whither the special protections?

    The community consensus around here seems to be that journalists have not met their burden, and deserve no special protection. (I'm sure that there are a substantial number of people here who would argue that neither have the medical or legal professions, actually).

    Amateurs are fighting for, and in some cases winning, the special protections previously only afforded to professionals.

    This is an an affront to the profession. Since the profession regulates itself, it is not-too-indirectly an affront to professional journalists personally. It's saying "you have failed to meet your duty of care and are no better than amateurs. We are revoking your special protections."

    Many amateurs, plus the peanut gallery around here, are slapping journalists in the face through this discourse and attitude. Whether or not they deserve it, they got slapped. Getting slapped in the face is never fun and it certainly doesn't make you feel all warm and snuggly with the one doing the slapping. I am sure that many journalists think that they DO work to a higher standard, and DO deserve those protections, which means they certainly don't think they did anything to deserve it.

    Astronomers don't exist in this climate. The sciences have largely escaped the stigma of being "high stakes professions" in need of regulation, despite their involvement in high-stakes events like the development of the atomic bomb and influencing policy on global warming. Nearly all sciences have professional societies that establish codes of ethics and practice, but these are mostly ornamental. The difference between a professional astronomer and an amateur one is, and always has been, the ability and desire to get employed as a professional.

    Unlike in astronomy, there is a line between professional and amateur journalists, which is being blurred or erased. The line separated those bound by a code of practices and ethics from those who were not bound. It defined a group that was afforded special social privilege by virtue of its higher standards and barriers to entry. Now you're taking that away. Again, it is little wonder that journalists feel threatened.

    I wonder if this is a positive development or not. You can blame professional journalists for this all you want, but it doesn't change the fact that it's happening. I personally do view journalism as a high-stakes profession (although not as high as medicine, for example). I think that quality is more important than quantity in journalism as well. I seem to be in the minority here, though, since the free market will save us all. Sigh.

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