Nowadays people love to speak about citizens-something: citizens’ journalism, citizens’ electoral monitoring, citizens’ HR monitoring. The power of crowd-sourcing is the new discover behind citizens’ new powers and skills. But I think there is a huge misunderstanding behind those concepts: professionalism is not dead, and citizens can do everything they want, but this doesn’t make them professionals.
Journalism is not the same thing that citizens’ journalism, and this is for a simple reason: a professional is someone that has knowledge, skills and a deep understanding of the overall consequences, is not simply someone that does an action. If I write an article, for how well this article can be, I am not becoming a journalist just for the very simple act of doing what a journalist does.
If someone decides to do surgery without being a doctor, and the surgery goes well, then will be he allow to do a surgery again? I think that everybody agrees that the answer to this question is no. And we all agree on this because we know that this may have been just because he was lucky. We don’t allow people that don’t have degree in Medicine to do surgery because they can kill someone.
Well, in nowadays word, this principle should be applied to journalism as well, as much as it is impossible not to see that information, or misinformation, can kill people as much as can save lives. We have examples of this, just look at the power of radio stations in the Rwandan genocide, or more recently at the accusations made against some vernacular radio stations in Kenya for their role in fomenting violence’s during the clashes following the Presidential election in Kenya in 2008.
Does this means that I am against citizens journalism? Of course I am not, I think it is great to have a source of information coming from the people, from the citizens, because they are ultimately the ones that are interested in sharing information, and also they are the ones that have direct access to the information.
My point is that there must be no confusion in between citizens reporting, or monitoring, and professionals. Citizens do, professional analyze, structure, transform an act into a content. This is the difference. Citizens have access to what they see, they have knowledge of their culture, background and environment. Professionals can mix this, the information, with a broader prospective, with a broader knowledge that goes, or should go, beyond the reality of the citizens knowledge, to meet with the professional standards and practice coming from the education they received.
This is what is making a doctor a doctor: not the fact that he can do a surgery, but the fact that he knows how to do it, he knows all the possible consequences of each move he is doing, and how to repair to eventual unexpected consequences. This is what makes a journalist a journalist: the fact that he knows the power of the information and the consequences of delivering certain information in a way or another.
So what do we do with citizens’ journalism? Well here is where I see the power of mixing, here is where I see in general the power of crowd-sourcing: where we feed crowd-sourced information into professionals. A journalist cannot be everywhere. He goes where he think the information is, he looks for it. Now crowd-sourced information can be the his compass, people give the direction and the content, professionals can give the verification and the content. This is where I see the power of citizens journalism, which in this perspective can allow people to direct the journalists, the professionals, and tell them where to look.
And the same thing can be done for electoral monitoring: electoral monitors cannot monitor an entire country, and sometime not even all the pooling stations. But citizens monitoring can tell them where to look at, and this can save time and resources. Professionals still remain professionals, and citizens still remain citizens, but one can complete and the other, and citizens can be the ones that ultimately have a word to say.
And if journalists are paid not to see or listen, then the citizens’ voice will be anyway stronger that the journalist’ silence. This is the power of crowd-sourcing professional skills, they cannot substitute professionals’ skills, but they can overcome professionals’ silence if they decide to shut up.
If there are 100 reports from citizens saying that there has been a violation, and the journalists, maybe paid by the government, decide not to report it, then the power of public crowd-sourcing platform like Ushahidi cannot be ignored: people can send in pictures, video, audio file and prove that they are right. But this is not making them professional journalists.
On the other side if they send in 100 reports and journalists decide to go there and do their job, then the information will come out anyway, and this time with a level of verification more, in addition to probably an analysis of what the background is, why this violation is a violation, and so on. Citizens’ journalism in this sense works either way: if the journalist is doing his job and if he is not doing it.
Crowd-sourcing professional skills is not transforming the crowd into professionals, but it directly affects professionals activities: it can confirm it or deny it, but it will not substitute it.