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. icon
    Richard (profile), 4 Jun 2010 @ 2:18am


    I think the problem here is that the public simply does not see professional journalists actually delivering quality.

    I remember a few years ago (pre-internet) a friend of mine was involved in a legal case about a disputed bequest that was reported in the press. His comment at the end of the process was that if the accuracy of reporting of his case was representative of the accuracy of press reporting in general then heaven help us - because we simply have no idea about what is going on in the world.

    On the handful of occasions when I have been in similar position to him I have noticed the same thing and so has every friend or acquaintance that I have ever discussed this issue with (even including a friend who is a journalist himself).

    Most recently, observing press reporting of the recent tragic events in Cumbria I noted that a number of things were said early on that later turned out to be untrue. This does give the impression that in the absence of reliable information the press will simply print whatever they are told without making adequate checks - or even just make stuff up.

    As things stand "professional" journalism offers two things over amateur.

    1. There is a small minority amongst professionals whose writing style is really entertaining and/or who have the ability to analyse a topic, construct an argument and put over a novel way of thinking effectively.

    2. Only professional journalists have the combination of resources/contacts/commitment to go to the really difficult places (war zones, closed countries etc). Although (on second thoughts) even here there may be aid workers etc who could fill in the job.

    Given modern technology for distribution there may be a problem constructing a business model to support these activities. In the UK, unless certain politicians get their way, we can rely on the BBC to fill this slot - but it would be better if they had some competition.

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