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Watching the Watchdog: Why Citizen Bloggers Aren't Journalists

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

Seems I've suddenly become a journalism guru to whom young people with stars in their eyes and All The President's Men in their futures flock for wisdom. And, if it's not too much trouble sir, can you tell me the ever-popular meaning of life?

Or maybe it's very early mid-term essay time at journalism schools across the nation.

Either way, I'm a modest man with much to be modest about. So I'm always secretly pleased when a bright young phone voice interrupts my writing of the next great Canadian novel (which isn't going so well, if you must know), or my email lights up with "Your views on X please?"

The emails and phone calls flow in. (I don't really understand Facebook so I discourage it's use which is likely the only way to survive it). And they want to know what I think of journalism and CBC and Sun News and HuffPost and the free marketplace of ideas and The Internet And How It's Killing Journalism As We Know It.

But mostly they want my views on something they call "Citizen Journalists".

I guess that's because I've written on the subject in the past and they've dug up my columns and are all girded to zap me as an unrepentant and unreconstructed fossil who can be laughed out of the company of the next generation of journalists to whom the truth has just been revealed.

But back to citizen journalists.

They don't exist.

I don't go quite as far as Morley Safer, the famed Canadian co-host of CBS's Sixty Minutes. Old Morley states flatly:

"I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery ... The blogosphere is no alternative, crammed as it is with ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard."

That, of course, brings up the question -- then who on earth are those people who reported from Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria? The people who worked the streets and often risked their lives to write blogs and shoot scary, vivid pictures of all that hatred and violence and sent them to Al Jazeera and CNN and BBC to expose the horrors of their war?

The answer is that they're not "citizen journalists".

They're citizen bloggers.

And I have huge respect for them.

But citizen bloggers aren't journalists.

Bloggers are not by nature into accuracy, balance and fairness, the hallmarks of good journalists.

Journalists are different from other people. We're trained to report on all sides without fear or favour. We're trained to serve the people, not the powers that be -- which includes governments and our unions and our political beliefs and the nice people who sign our cheques.

Our first, last and only important responsibility is to be trustworthy servants of the people and their right to know the truth about what's happening in their world.

And just so you know, before anything we write can go to print or on air, a senior journalist first checks and edits it for accuracy and grammar etc.

If these things were not so, experienced journalists wouldn't be able to write some of the things they do.

It's a matter of professional trust. Over time they've earned the trust of their colleagues, their bosses and their audiences.

For instance, it's that professional trust that enables Campbell Clark who is foreign affairs reporter for the Globe and Mail to write about Canada's Foreign Minister this week:

"Don't worry, John Baird. You don't have to trust Iran's new president. Neither does the United States, or the rest of the world. The goal is to get something out of him."

Clark quotes no sources. Instead, he relies on his own professional understanding of the situation.

Then there's the CBC's Neil Macdonald who's senior Washington correspondent for CBC News. Macdonald writes about the U.S. government shutdown this week:

"Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a camera hound of the first order, stood on the Senate floor quoting the Dr. Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham as the clock ticked toward a government shutdown."

"The green eggs and ham, in Cruz's presumed logic, is Obamacare, which the Tea Party is determined to repeal, even if it means shuttering government and the world's faith in America's ability to pay its debts."

Macdonald can only make such acerbic judgments because he's trusted, really knows the subject, has done his due diligence and proved his worth over the years.

These people and other such experienced journalists have earned the right to analyze, to explain meaning, as well as report facts. That's because they're trusted, experienced professional journalists.

Citizen bloggers they're not.

Bloggers' contributions can be extremely important to a news story. But before their information can be used it has to be checked by professionals. Only then, only if the information proves to be correct, can it be trusted and used.

But times are tough. Newsrooms around the nation are being cut to the bone. Does that mean citizen bloggers who charge nothing are moving in, taking jobs away from the salaried professionals?

I got that question only two days ago from Danya LeBlanc, a very polite journalism student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. who's writing a research paper on something called "citizen journalists".

Danya: "Do you think there's a conflict for work because citizen journalists are taking (professional's) jobs?"

Tim: "There's no such thing as a citizen journalist."

Danya: "Sorry. The bloggers ...?"

Tim: "If somebody blogs consistently, particularly for a local paper, and enough of his or her stuff is picked up by the newspaper after being checked out, going through the editorial process, then by all means, that person should be hired. Remember, old guys like me die. So somebody has to come in. Like you, for instance, Danya."

So I guess my message is that there's some hope for citizen bloggers.

All the interviews have been edited and condensed.

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