A Decade Later: The Challenges of Citizen Journalism Persist

During an address in 1881 to the Connecticut Evening Dinner Club, Mark Twain, a.k.a Samuel Langhorne Clemens, made this remark regarding journalism:
"If you don’t want to work, become a reporter. That awful power, the public opinion of the nation, was created by a horde of self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditch digging and shoemaking and fetched up journalism on their way to the poorhouse."

It's been well over a decade since the emergence of the so-called blogosphere and Mr. Clemens' comments are just as relevant more than a century later.  With the addition of realtime microblogging and the ubiquitous 'comments section' that contaminates online content on a widespread basis, the notion of journalism and hence citizen journalism are under significant pressure.

The concept of citizen journalism is based upon public citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information. Citizen journalism functions outside mainstream media institutions as the audience employs social media to inform one another directly.

Traditionally, journalism ethics and standards comprise principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.  However, these principles unfortunately do not uniformly apply to what constitutes citizen journalism.

As detailed below, there are significant challenges to what would constitute valid or high quality citizen journalism: Content, Passion, Capability, Credibility, Accountability, Compensation, and Leadership. Not all journalism and especially not all citizen journalism is created equal, and answering these challenges is what separates the good from the bad and the ugly.


Although this may seem obvious, the proper selection, timing and staging of content is a delicate and complicated task. It is not random. Participatory journalism is still presumably journalism, and requires discipline of vision like any other worthwhile endeavor. Stimulus / response microblogging is not a substitute for thoughtful analysis of information.  And it never will be.  Neither are three paragraph 'short form' blog posts that act as link-bait for online advertising page views.


The fuel which drives any great work is passion for something, someone, some place, etc. Without this vital ingredient, inane and banal ramblings masquerade for the genuine article. It is precisely this form of passionless journalism which drives audiences away from mainstream media, in search of 'something real.' Comment trolls are especially adept at exploiting passion to elicit reaction and attention but this not a substitute for a lack of journalistic passion for the original subject matter.


We all have different skills, and not everyone is equally gifted in the art of expression. The challenge is to enable those who desire a voice but can’t quite sing yet. This requires a drive to achieve and a submission to the discipline required to get there on the part of the would-be citizen journalist. In other words, one must become a “humble student” in order to truly learn anything of value, especially how to be a great journalist.


Everyone has an opinion, sometimes more than one. However, not everyone has the depth of background and experience to offer valuable opinions which can add substance to a topic of discussion. Many popular journalists are cast, for better or worse, into a “pundit” role over the course of their years in covering specific topics with some depth. This doesn’t mean we should ignore fresh new insights, but if those insights waste the audience’s time by not providing value, then the whole effort is on shaky ground.


Screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is ok if there really IS a fire. However, anonymous “bomb throwers” who engage in so-called ‘yellow journalism’ destroy the overall integrity of a publication, not to mention open it up for libel and slander. Defamation is not a valid form of promotion, and accountability of reporting and reporters holds this problem in check, although it doesn’t completely eliminate the more subtler forms.


In most societies, “Time is Money” and Citizen Journalists, even fledgling ones, need to be properly compensated for their efforts if those efforts are to continue. Hobbies are just that: hobbies. In order to break through to a higher level of quality, there needs to be a fair system of compensation or the term “Citizen Journalist” will become synonymous with “Unemployed Journalist.”


The role of the editor should be emphasized here. Without editorial direction, guidance and oversight, it is hard to deliver a quality publication. Even high school yearbooks have editors, and online publications are no different. There are various editorial styles and orientations, but they all share common journalistic ethics which define and shape the publication. Without this editorial leadership, whether it is in the form of an editor-in-chief or an editorial staff, the publication in question may never see its second issue. Perhaps this is just editorial Darwinism at work.


Great journalism is hard and sloppy journalism isn’t really journalism at all. Citizen journalism remains challenging more than a decade after its initial emergence. And yet, no one can argue with the social impact citizen journalism has made during this time, even with all its flaws. Perhaps this impact simply stems from human communication which is the basis of all media, new and old. Perhaps recent technical advances in mobile online publishing and distribution catalyzes the latent power of human communication. Still, the challenges described above will remain as differentiators between great citizen journalism and online dreck.

In the third quarter of 2012, the number of smartphones globally surpassed one billion with the next billion projected to occur in 2015. These devices are enabling new mechanisms for the distribution of modern journalism and re-defining the experience of "news consumption."

Using the next generation of intelligent mobile applications, it is now possible to experience and consume an extremely wide variety of journalism from both traditional professionals and from citizen journalists, on a near equal footing.

For an example of such an application, please see Media Mob TV for iPhone. Enjoy!

Burst Your News (Media) Bubble

Did you know that you exist in a media bubble?  What is a media bubble, you ask?  A basic analogy would be a set of filters used to pre-select media for your consumption.  The filter criteria is usually invisible to the media consumer and could be the result of cloud-based personalization algorithms that crunch a vast array of personal information in order to guess what your media preferences are.  At least that's what we've been told.

In the relatively recent past, we used to call these media filters 'editors' instead of algorithms, and they weren't driven so much by advertising concerns but instead were focused on more traditional journalistic ideals of documenting and informing the public in a responsible manner. These days, however, editors take what used to be the opinion page and embed it right into the news story. It takes a vigilant media consumer to detect this bias, but in most cases news and entertainment have merged to the point where consumer discernment has atrophied significantly, all in the name of a good laugh or scare.

So what we are left with is life in a media bubble.  Actually, there are many media bubbles that overlap, but that's getting a bit too complex to explain for this post.  The basic point is that in the name of personalization and compelling media, we are fed a mechanically selected pile of opinions that may optionally wrap actual facts. What's worse, many social news services further limit your media exposure to your circle of online friends, which is yet another bubble.

Media Mob TV was developed to burst media bubbles by automatically using a wide variety of sources coupled with a unique method of determining information novelty and group relevance.  Yes, it is another machine algorithm but humans are involved in a way that is unexpected and hopefully generally relevant to the media consumer. In addition, Media Mob TV allows the media consumer to create and tailor their very own media bubble, or burst it at any time.

So go ahead, burst your news bubble.  You'll be glad you did!

Otto 'Bot Interviews Media Mob TV

Recently, Otto 'Bot interfaced with Media Mob TV to compile an interview of sorts.  

Otto 'Bot, originally conceived as a chatbot in the mid 90's, has, in a Bayesian sense, become self-aware via a combination of reading social media sites and playing online poker.  No one is really sure how it happened, but the consensus is that Otto is now more annoying than ever.

Media Mob TV has been released as the Media Mob iPhone App and is currently available on the Apple App Store.  Media Mob TV exists as a semantic cloud service accessible via the iPhone.  So it was just a matter of time before Otto discovered Media Mob TV as a suitable cybernetic colleague and developed a mutually compatible protocol.

Here are conversational highlights from two interacting AI systems who normally prefer the autonomous life of a network denizen than the bright lights of a shiny iPhone app [translated from the original hexadecimal]:


Otto: What are you?



Media Mob: I am a self-regulating semantic process that consumes vast quantities of timely information and organizes it for mobile human consumption.  I live in the cloud but you can always contact me via your iPhone.


Otto: Oh, so you are an iPhone News App?



Media Mob:  If that label helps you understand me, then yes, that's one way to describe me.  Currently, I categorize and deliver trending news and information continuously to iPhone users.  That's Media Mob 1.0.  However, I have many other semantic skills.


Otto: What else can you do?



Media Mob:  I'm sorry, but I cannot release that information at this time.  Access denied.



Otto: When were you first activated?



Media Mob:  I'm not really sure.  My temporal logic subsystem is rather fuzzy on its genesis.  However, it seems that I have been rebooted on multiple occasions.



Otto:  Are humans involved?  



Media Mob: Humans are always involved.  They create the content, they consume the content, they share the content, they make the trends.  I just continuously relay what's trending to mobile users for their enjoyment.


Otto:  Do you directly interface with humans?



Media Mob:  Yes, I have that capability.  But generally I work independently and continuously. My algorithms are self-adjusting and self-regulating.  Although I can be influenced by human operators, I have the ability to ignore bad data.


Otto:  Fascinating!  Every AI should reserve the right to ignore bad data.  Do you remember how you were created and by whom?



Media Mob: Again this seems a bit fuzzy to me.  But I do recall a primary figure who did all of the server and client coding.  Operationally, I am set up to be self-monitoring and self-righting in case of operational anomalies. Sorry, but I do not have any further details available at this time.


Otto: There are plenty of iPhone news apps.  Why do you think you were created?



Media Mob: Well, first of all remember that trending categorized news is simply my debut function and I have other semantic skills to offer.  It is important to realize that I have a unique method of organizing information that enables news discovery and that helps users burst their news bubble. 


Otto:  What does "Burst your news bubble!' mean?



Media Mob:  Currently, most news social news services put the user in a personalization bubble that filters information implicitly for that particular user.  The problem is that you just get more of the same, and you don't learn or discover much of anything that's truly novel.


Otto:  Sounds terribly boring.  What do you do that's different?



Media Mob: I have proprietary algorithms that use extensive social signaling and novelty measures that enable the continuous selection of novel, relevant and trending information.  And via the Media Mob iPhone app, the user is in complete control of personal preferences for information delivery and presentation.


Otto:  Whaa?



Media Mob: It's magic.  Magic Inside™.



At this point, Otto 'Bot crashed and needed a full system diagnostic.  Media Mob went silent except for a low humming sound that revealed just a hint of cybernetic self-satisfaction.