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Fighting for the Internet

The internet is great because it is accessible. We have the ability to access the websites we want, and in theory no website has any advantage over another. But why would we want to leave it like this? Capitalist gains. The large broadband providers, like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner, want to create “fast lanes” that would allow companies that can pay for quicker broadband access do it. It should be a no-brainer that the Federal Communications Commission wouldn’t allow this, but things get a little sticky when the chairman used to be a lobbyist for the broadband companies.

If the FCC had allowed this to happen it would have prevented internet users from having the same access to smaller companies, like independent news outlets. Instead it would have been easier to access the big corporations that can afford the fast lane fees. This monopolization of the internet is not what is in the best interest for the public or the people trying to actually inform the public of what is going on. Part of the reason independent journalism is currently successful is because of access to the internet. Anyone can create a blog and become a journalist, and these new journalists have access to almost any piece of information they could possible want.

While what was going on with the large providers was not promising, the public response was. It is not often that the American public mobilizes on an issues or feels strongly about something, but in this case it was. When the FCC opened up its website to public comments about net neutrality the website crashed. More than 780,000 comments were left in the first few hours that it was open showcasing how people felt about the proposal of fast lanes. People had opinions about the topic, and rightfully so.

The public should not be restricted in what they can access and how they can access it. If people want protest an issue or combat a powerhouse corporation, they should be able to do that on the internet regardless of how much money the broadband companies want to make.

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The Power of an Incorrect Story

Wrong information gets reported all the time. Whether its two numbers that get transposed or the wrong person’s name is used, journalists sometimes get it wrong and we are all fine in the end. Mistakes are bound to happen and we have to get over that, but what happens when journalists and news organizations don’t make a conscious effort to report on correct information?

Unfortunately when news organizations or journalists have an agenda they can report on pretty much whatever they want and people are going to believe not matter who is taken down in their wake. Throw in a couple of anonymous sources or a friend of a friend and the story will spread like wildfire. People are supposed to be able to trust journalists, why wouldn’t they trust what was on the front page of a newspaper?

There have been numerous examples (a few involving The Drudge Report) of incorrectly reported stories dealing with public or political figures. Among the stories include examples dealing with former President Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Shirley Sharrod. Not only were these stories covered by low-bar publications, like The Sun, but they were also picked up by mainstream outlets like CNN. What does it say when someone on CNN is referencing The Drudge Report as a source when Drudge rarely does any original reporting, when he does, frequently gets it wrong.

The example with Kerry stands out particularly because it accused Kerry of having an affair with one of his interns. The intern was named in the story, and supposedly her father was quoted. The story broke in England, but was then circulated in the U.S. What I don’t understand is how there wasn’t any journalists in the U.S. who had the thought to try and contact the former intern. It’s not like this story happened in 1990 when the Internet was in its early stages and not everyone’s every move was documented on Facebook and Twitter. There should have been at least one mainstream outlet who could have tried to contact the girl and confirm the story, even if it was just to get more dirty details from her.

Instead, she had to come forward and refute all the crazy claims that had been made about her and Kerry. According to the article in The Guardian, she thought the story would have died because the story was completely false. In this day and age there is no reason for these completely false, hurtful stories to get circulated because someone should have the brains to actually factcheck the information that is going out to the public.

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Power of Citizen Journalists

There is no denying that citizen journalists need to be taken seriously. Anyone can be a citizen journalist, and many people are taking advantage of that opportunity. All people need is an internet connection and they can entire the journalism industry full force.

Mayhill Fowler is an example of a citizen journalist who has exemplified the power they can have. As a reporter for the Off the Bus project for The Huffington Post, she has broken stories that only she had access to. Her reporting on bitter and elitist comments that then campaign-hopeful Barack Obama made and nasty comments Bill Clinton made about a Vanity Fair reporter contributed to national headlines. These stories didn’t just stay on her HuffPost blog. Mainstream journalists picked up the stories and her journalism was being followed.

This is just one example of a citizen journalist who covered important issues that professional journalists weren’t covering. Citizen journalists tend to have different interests and agendas when they are covering issues, compared to professional journalists, which influences the topics they cover. They also tend to have access to different people and events that traditional journalists don’t have access to or don’t know about.

This was also the case with Fowler during some of the campaign stops. In a Salon article Alex Koppelman brought up the ethical issue of Fowler having access to a non-press event and not disclosing herself as a journalism to Clinton. Had Fowler distinguished herself as a journalist she may not have gotten access to the stories she covered. Even though she is a citizen journalist, she should still hold herself to the same journalistic standards professional journalists follow, if she wanted to be treated and respected as a journalist. While not every journalist discloses their agenda or their profession in a given situation, it is something journalists, even citizen journalists should strive for. Getting the hard-hitting important story is important, but it is also important to conduct yourself ethically and with integrity.

Fowler may not have conducted herself as I would have put in her situations, but it is undeniable she did important journalist work when she was only considered a citizen journalist. Citizen journalists have just as much opportunity and potential to cover the important stories as professional journalists.

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Transparency Over Objectivity

As David Weinberger pointed out in his article about transparency and objectivity, objectivity does not exist to the extent that it is taught in journalism classes. Journalists may like to believe they are telling objective stories to their audiences, but it can’t be done. Every journalist enters a story with personal experiences, pre-conceived notions, biases and different understandings of a topic. As much as both sides of a story are presented and there are an equal amount of sources, the journalist still chooses what quotes to include, what details are relevant and what sources to even interview. All of these factors diminish objectivity, but it doesn’t mean journalists can’t do their job effectively or well. Journalism just needs to be approached from a different perspective.

Transparency is how journalists can still do their jobs effectively and combat the standards established by the unattainable notions of objectivity. Disclosing biases and informing audiences of where journalists are coming from creates a better understanding among readers and journalists. In situations where journalists are transparent, readers know exactly what kind of story they are reading and why a specific angle was taken or why a journalist told a story the way he or she did.

If journalists don’t try to be objective it does not mean they are not telling a story accurately or fairly. They are telling it from their perspective and based on the information they researched. If they feel like one side is acting wrong or unfairly and they have the research to back it up, there is no reason the readers should not trust that story. There aren’t overarching policies or standards that can be applied to journalism because there are so many different situations and cases that can’t be predicted or change over time. Publications have different content and agendas, and this is going to influence both the transparency of the publication and the reporters. The key is being transparent, instead of trying to reach an objective standard that does not exist.

As Weinberge said:

The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark.

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To pay or not to pay?

Should journalists always get paid for the work they produce? It’s a question that I’m not sure has a definite answer, but the more I have thought about it the closer to an answer for myself I have come. I used to think if anyone would publish me, I would take it. I get my name out there, I get a byline. What isn’t there to like? I need clips to get a job, right? But are the clips more important than my integrity or my time and effort that went into that piece?

At a conference last spring, one of the presenters made a comment that resonated with me. He said something along the lines of “If you do work for free, you are just hurting in the industry as a whole.” He went on to explain that if more and more journalists accept doing work for free it will become more common and it will be more difficult for freelancers to get paid fair compensation or get paid at all. I had never looked at it from that perspective, but it made sense. If I am going to write a story for free to get the experience, why would a publication pick someone else to write the same story, but he or she expects to get paid? This comment made me reconsider the value that I hold in my work and what I should expect of myself.

This doesn’t mean that I would never write for free or I think every time someone publishes something he or she should be compensated, but there are only certain circumstances where journalists shouldn’t be paid for their work. Therefore, I think some of the backlash Arianna Huffington received when she sold The Huffington Post to AOL was warranted. She made a pretty penny off of the work that her unpaid bloggers were producing. Granted, I can only assume these bloggers were knowingly producing content they knew they would not be paid for, but I don’t think that is the best journalistic model. Also, when those bloggers signed up to write for free, they couldn’t have known the value The Huffington Post would rise to when it was sold.

Those bloggers created the success The Huffington Post reached, but did they reap the benefits that Huffinton reached? Monetarily, no way. Now maybe some of those bloggers went on to get paid jobs based off of their work or their unpaid work was just a side job to their paid job, but that couldn’t have been the case for anyone.

While The Huffington Post can be deemed a successful model, is it a model that the journalism industry should want to replicate if it means allowing journalists to do a job they should get paid for, for free?

I would love to work for a successful publication, but that doesn’t mean I would want to change my values or beliefs just to get a byline.

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The Power of One

Matthew Lee’s story about his publication, Inner City Press, struck a cord with me because it showed how much power one company could have over who sees content on the Internet. Even though Google just blocked Inner City Press from the news feature on its website, it was still prohibiting an option for readers to find that content. All of Inner City Press’s content was still on the Internet, but Google made it significantly more difficult for people to come by it. Lee was willing to speak up against Google, something the mainstream media was not doing, and he was punished for it. He was asking the questions that should have been asked, which mainstream reporters were to afraid to ask.

This is only one of the many disadvantages independent journalists face. They don’t have the protection of a big corporation, and they don’t have the resources to fight back against any injustice brought against them. It is important that other journalists showed support for Lee, even reporters in the mainstream field.

Regardless of capitalism and big corporation’s power, independent journalists and publications need to continue doing the work they have set out to do. It is inevitable that they are going to face obstacles and challenges, like those experienced by Inner City Press, but what is important is what they continue to do after those challenges are faced. There are enough independent journalists out there that can show support and band together to continue the important journalism that is being produced. Time and time again, it has been proven it is not an easy industry to be a part of, but it isn’t discouraging enough where these journalists don’t go back for more.

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Who is a journalist?

I don’t think it is truly possible to define who a journalist is. There is always going to be some situation that is an except or breaks the set standards, so why bothering defining what makes or doesn’t make a journalist; especially if it means excluding bloggers or nonsalaried reporters. The articles this week that talked about bloggers potentially being excluded from executive sessions in Oregon and a senator’s attempt to define real journalists were mind boggling are perfect examples of why people, especially government officials should not be trying to define what makes a journalist.

If a blogger is trying to cover government proceedings there is no reason he or she should not be considered a journalist. Even if a blogger isn’t trying to cover government proceedings, he or she should still be considered a journalist. There are varying degrees of what a journalist is and what he or she covers, and it doesn’t always fit into a perfect box of what a government would like to outline. Bloggers could be doing second had report, first hand reporting or media analysis; and all of these things classify them as journalists. If a blogger considers himself or herself a journalist and he or she can make a case, then there is no reason not to classify he or she as a journalist.

The second article about the shield law brought up the exclusion of nonsalaried journalists as not “real journalists.” Just because someone is no employed by a publication, does not mean he or she is not doing reporting where there may be the need to using confidential sources. Not all reporting is done for monetary benefit. Also, by excluding nonsalaried journalists from the definition, it would also be excluding freelance reporters. Many journalists spend some of their career doing freelance work, still producing quality journalism, but are paid by the article instead of a salary. So someone who freelances for The Nation, shouldn’t be given the same writes as a staff writer? Even though they are covering the same beat and writing similar stories with similar sources. It doesn’t make any sense.

Government officials should stay out of territory they do not understand. It would benefit themselves and the journalists they are trying to quiet.

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