Citizen journalists can fill the gaps

December 12, 2010 

Next month, more than 40 freshman legislators will take their oaths at the General Assembly. As they begin to tackle the issues of the day, including a looming $3.5 billion budget hole, where will these representatives turn for information? And how will the rest of us keep tabs on their decisions?

Privately financed think tanks will be happy to bring Raleigh's newcomers up to speed. But only a handful of professional reporters are left to cover our capital. At the end of the last legislative session, WUNC reporter Laura Leslie noted there were only eight of her cohorts left to watch the gavel fall. "Fewer than one per million people in this state," she noted.

The economic downturn and industrywide layoffs have reduced the ranks of reporters at major media outlets. Online media have offered new opportunities for politically motivated individuals to get their messages out. But for the average voter, it gets harder to hear reliable, trustworthy facts through the shouting.

If the residents of North Carolina are to access the information they need to be citizens, we must find a way to foster new and diverse tributaries of news and information to flow into the mainstream media.

Tributaries include small, start-up news operations, hyperlocal papers, blogs and nonprofits that produce information as part of their mission. Anyone who commits acts of journalism can contribute to the flow of high-quality information.

What the Triangle needs more urgently than additional professional journalists are more people who think journalistically. We need more people who cannot just describe what is seen, but who are curious about what we might not be seeing. We need more people who are less interested in what they can make people think and more interested in showing the public how we know what we know.

Curiosity and verification are the core tenets of journalistic thinking, and we need to find a way to hone those instincts among all North Carolinians. At the very least, they'll become better consumers of news, and there's a chance that some might even become better producers of news. Professional reporters need to organize their audience in order to get the job done.

Here are a few actions we can take right now if we want to strengthen journalistic thinking in the state and lower the barriers to entry for media entrepreneurs:

Public records produced at every level of government should be made available quickly online in a format that can be easily digested by computer programs that can detect early trends or newsworthy oddities by automatically combing fields of data.

Every news organization should hire at least one person to actively cultivate online community. Like broken windows in an abandoned neighborhood, the uninformed anger and irrelevant rants of article comments on news websites have given visitors the impression that it's OK to behave badly in those places. Proper moderation rewards civil discourse.

Similarly, the mainstream media need to help anyone who is already blogging on current events learn how to dig deeper into a story by requesting public records, identifying larger trends and verifying everything they see and hear.

Community foundations should establish and fund a volunteer program similar to AmeriCorps that financially supports recent college graduates who want to spend two years reporting news from communities that have no professional reporters dedicated to them.

Journalistic thinking and digital publishing should become a part of any civic leadership or volunteer training effort. "Neighborhood colleges" and public access television already help to develop community leaders and media producers. Each of those programs should add journalistic thinking and digital publishing to their agendas.

Leaders of the high-tech industry in the Triangle should organize public-interest "code camps" during which computer programmers spend intensive weekends focused on developing free and open-source digital tools that can be used by professional and amateur journalists.

Media literacy should be added to the state middle and high school curricula. Journalistic thinking can help North Carolina's students learn about writing, math and the scientific method. Teaching them to produce digital media can increase the fluency with information technology that will help them find jobs and develop rural and urban economies.

Free, fair and factual public discourse is losing ground. If we want the media to hold powerful people accountable, shine light in dark places and give voice to the voiceless, we need to build an ecosystem in which a diversity of journalistic species can survive.

Ryan Thornburg is an assistant professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He blogs about the future of journalism at www.ryanthornburg.net. Fiona Morgan is a graduate student at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and a case analyst for the New America Foundation's Knight Media Policy Initiative. Her report on the Triangle's media ecology is available at bit.ly/dioBUq.

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