Hold your nose, here comes an iReporter

Patt Morrison blogged recently about watching a CNN anchor talk to one of their iReporters.

CNN’s website is recruiting accounts from iReporters the world over; so many people have video and photo capability in their pockets, thanks to cell phones, that no disaster of any magnitude seems to go unrecorded.

But actual reporting [is] another matter. You can’t blame a news operation for wanting the immediacy and the visuals of the moment. And free labor is nothing to turn up your nose at, especially when real-time accounts from around the world make today’s shoestring news operations seem mightier and more bulked-up than they really are.

As for the theory that anyone can be an ”iReporter,” as the San Diego crash account shows, there is more to reporting than pointing your cellphone camera in the right direction and telling the world that what you’re seeing is ”awful” or ”terrible” (words which can apply to just about any disaster, but which say virtually nothing about the disaster at hand).

I do understand that she wants us to remember the distinction between source/witness and actual reporter. But does she have to do it with such disdain? Even one of the comments noted her disdain for “citizen journalists.” But its really short-sighted to simply dismiss it that easily.

Don’t get me wrong — I know that on the ground reporters cannot be replaced easily. Shoot, isn’t the continual death spiral of newspapers an indication of that? Too few reporters + too few editors + too few copy editors = Not a newspaper. Heheh, that’s an equation if there ever was one. Anyway, as we journalists always like to say, “don’t blame the messenger.”

So I say, don’t blame the iReporter. We all realize that iReporters and other brands of citizen journalists generally don’t have the benefit of actually knowing how the justice system works (and if they do, how did they come about that knowledge, hmmmm????) or the courts, or local government, or any other type of bureaucracy that a journalist typically has to deal with every day. Shoot, you could say the same for a lot of the people who get hired straight out of journalism school. (I can think of quite a few people who graduated from journalism schools who have no idea how a city council meeting works.)

It’s true that only two years ago we would have simply called these people witnesses or sources. Is it their fault that news organizations have simply slapped on a new label or, in the case of TV, chyron? Nope, not their fault.

In a way, the argument that Patt Morrison uses to criticize iReporters can also be used to criticize broadcast journalism. Check this out:

The cell phone visuals and eyewitness accounts lend immediacy, but they are only a part of any story. A picture conveys sensation, not information. So here’s the scene of a shooting — horrible, right? But without the words to report it, how can we assess what the image means? Is that a body of an innocent bystander? Or an al Qaeda loyalist? Same image, two entirely different messages to take away from it, once the facts are known.

Just replace the “cell phone visuals” with “video.” And I’ve heard way more vague descriptions than “awful” or “terrible” used on air. And by the way — being on air is a lot harder than you might think. I sure don’t want to do it.

iReporters — not the enemy. I bet, in a few years, some of those very citizen journalists will become professional journalists. I mean, just a few years ago, bloggers were being dismissed as armchair generals whiling their time away at their computers in their pajamas (which is exactly what I’m doing right now, heheh). In fact, I think some have already crossed over. I’m thinking of one person specifically, but I refuse to link him because he flaked on an AAJA panel he promised to be on.

Bottom line, news is what drives all newspapers, TV newscasts, news websites and the way its delivered really doesn’t matter. It just so happens that the web and the technology available to us now makes it even easier to collect a variety of accounts, pictures and video (for free) and then pull it all together, professional and citizen. And that’s nothing to turn your nose up at.

This is an exciting time, in spite of the downturn and the bleak-looking future for news. Embrace it.