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Archive for February, 2010

In the process of reporting, we journalists write around uncertainties.

We are limited by what we’ve gleaned from a handful of interviews and sources.

We report what other people tell us is true. We do it with great deliberation and selection. We try to fact check and to choose reliable sources. We follow public records and take extensive notes.

Honestly, are we any different from the hundreds of contributors to Wikipedia or bloggers or anyone else who publishes on the Web?

That is where ethics play a part.

“If blogs are being read as news, making bloggers journalists, should they be required to abide by a code of ethics, similar to traditional journalists?” wrote Carolynne Burkholder in her article, “Citizen Journalism.”

Limits through set ethics are the only things that separate quality output from a waste of time.

 One journalist, Jonathan Dube, created CyberJournalist.net which has an adapted code of ethics, modeled after the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, for bloggers.

Perhaps, now we are getting somewhere.

What we do and what we say is important. How we write what we do and say is even more important.

If we are not going to get rid of careless competition on the Web taking over the once sacred realm of reporting and publishing, we can be more progressive and adopt a select set of ideals that make us different and make us better.

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While reporting on a story on campus this week, I stumbled upon the personification of the debate: Wikipedia as the Web utopia or the societal decay in the hands of monkeys.

I struck up a conversation with two women, Norma Romo, 79, and Anna Stephens, 74, both of Paradise, Calif.

I don’t know how it happened, but Romo brought up Wikipedia.

Stephens had never heard of it. She doesn’t use computers.

As I stood there, the two women began to discuss how and why anyone would use Wikipedia.

That was after Romo explained to Stephens what it is. Stephens was visibly disturbed.

“If you said something to someone that is wrong, you would look like a dope,” she said.

In Stephens voice of concern, I heard the confused alarm I had when someone had just explained to me what Wikipedia is.

She could not understand why someone would want to rely on a source that isn’t necessarily the truth.

Romo was a pinch toward the other end of the debate.

Although she’d never use it as absolute fact, it was useful, she said.

The heart of the conversation was rooted in the notion that we need someone to tell us the truth and to give us information that we need.

However, because we might just want that information quickly, that whole Web entity can be of some use.

When Romo wanted to find out quickly the latitude and longitude of a place near Mount Lassen, she couldn’t find it in her encyclopedia, she said.

It is like a GPS, though, you have to be careful, she said. It might just lead you stuck on the side of the road or off a cliff.

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Essentially, Wikipedia allows anyone to be a journalist.

Wikipedia contributors search for the most agreeable truth through discussion, word usage debates, and value judgments. They search for neutrality.

Journalists do the same. However, they call it objectivity.

Ironically, as I deliberated on this topic, I found that Wikipedia’s entry on objectivity that journalistic objectivity is synonymous with “neutrality.”

Referring to Wikipedia’s content production process discussed by David Weinberger in his book “Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Order,” these discussions are exemplary of what you would expect to hear in any traditional editorial board meeting.

Wikipedia already has a plethora of “editors” built into the process: all active users who can take, leave or modify the information. They are not white men in starched shirts in a closed-room meeting. It is a communal editing experience.

Journalists know what it means to be edited, corrected, and proofread. They also know that they will never arrive at a clear answer or conclusion to their stories and that they are limited by inevitable bias, error, unreliable sources, and restrictions of time and location.

Wikipedians have to accept these same conditions and that the process is transparent and visible to all who are paying attention.

I am not talking about opening the door to Wikipedia as a primary source in journalistic writing, which has been a debate since the site was founded. However, I would consider it as competition.

The question is not whether Wikipedians are journalists. The question is: “Are Wikipedians good journalists?”

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Journalists should care

For years, I have been telling people that I don’t want to be a journalist. Yet, here I am five months from a degree in journalism.

Honestly, I have been studying newsmaking since as far back as 1992. Much like a person who looks at Christianity as hypocritical and debased after meeting some pretentious do-gooders who practice religion like snow skiiers on ice skates, I started to think of all journalists as arrogant, self-righteous scavengers who pillage people’s personal lives for profit. Most recently, I have decided this is only cynical, and that a journalist should be more than that.

Journalists like Rick Bragg are stellar examples of what journalism can be. I read the book “All Over But the Shoutin,'” and my whole view of writing changed. I saw how beautiful it could be to write the candid truths and details of what I see and live. Most importantly I see that those things matter. It made me change my tactics.

When I was an editorial intern at Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif., I had the honor of doing a personal profile on a house-bound woman named Janie. The experience woke me to a new way to see my role. I realized that I can’t have a story without people, and I have to care about people, if I want a good story.

A journalist must tell what matters. To do that, she has to make judgments. To do that well, she has to invoke morality. It is a tall order.

I no longer want to be a journalist who skims the surface. I want my stories to resonate to the heart. Journalists have to care about what they write.

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