The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Find your own truth

What’s harder, telling the truth or telling what is the truth?

Although I’ve agonized over that question for some time, Dan Gillmor pushedClyde Bentley it right back into my face this week with Citizen Media: A Progress Report. Dan is perhaps best known for his book We The Media, but he is also a regular on the citizen journalism conference circuit and was the keynote speaker of this year’s OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters’ Forum in Seoul.

When I spoke at the same forum in 2005, Oh Yeon-ho was still struggling to get the traditional media to recognize the existence of the citizen journalism concept he championed through OhmyNews. Two years have produced a lifetime in progress, Gillmor demonstrated. He offered 10 points of progress and challenge for citizen journalism:

1. Citizen journalism is now recognized as more than a fad by almost everyone.
2. Traditional media are rushing to include citizen journalism in their organizations.
3. We now have a backlash from people who question the ethics, outcomes and impact of citizen journalism.
4. Techies are churning out new tools and bright minds are coming up with new ideas a mile a minute with the potential to improve and diversify journalism.
5. The focus is gradually turning to business issues as entrepreneurs, dreamers and corporate stalwarts alike look for ways to fund their citizen journalism outlets.
6. Meanwhile, the cost of experimenting with new media is so low that everyone is trying their hand. As Gillmor noted, “not only don’t you need permission, you don’t need much money, either.”
7. Super cell phones and everyday devices that can communicate with you are fertile fields for experimentation.
8. We are still struggling with the role of ethics, reliability and civility in citizen journalism.
9. But we see more fact-checking/challenging sites out there, such as Digg and NewsTrust.
10. And we all need a bit more media literacy.

Media literacy is where I came into this discussion. Superman recognized “truth, justice and the American Way” without X-ray vision, but the average mortal needs all the help he or she can get to cut through the information clutter. Gillmor reminds journalists to think of the tenets of Western journalism – thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and transparency – as sacred concepts rather than arbitrary rules. And he notes that even newshounds are more often media consumers than providers, so they and everyone should be skeptical, use their “internal trust meter,” learn the media techniques that our kids know and do the research before making a decision.

Good advice. But it skirts the real media literacy issue: Who is in charge of truth?

Since sometime after World War II, the American media have assumed the role of arbiters of truth. While our stated desire to provide unbiased and credible news for all citizens seems an egalitarian mission, we were forced into it. With advertisers demanding the ability to simplify their newspaper marketing with “one buy” per city and just three television networks on the air, the traditional media had to please everyone. And that means offending no one. Which then means you had better stick to “straight facts” uncolored by opinion. Trust me – it’s in black and white.

Now we have a generation or more of Americans who grew up never doubting the validity of what they read, watched or heard. We assured them they didn’t have to look elsewhere for the truth as it was all there in our tidy media package.

Not so in most of the world or through most of our own history. Intelligent citizens of many countries have long read two or three biased papers and caught a government newscast or two to “triangulate” on the truth.

The Web is bringing that old tradition of democratic inquiry to the United States. We now have millions of skeptics who no longer simply believe what they read on Page 1. They go to their favorite blog, to an alternative new site or send an e-mail question to a friend before accepting anything as “true.” The burden of truth has shifted from the media to the media users.

Damn, that hurts. But I truly believe that in the long run putting truth in the hands of readers rather than writers will be good for America and the world. Perception based on the scribblings of a blogger or the ever-changing files of a wiki may not always be accurate. But the mere fact that people are once again asking for a second opinion offers the hope of not just an informed electorate, but a critical citizenry.

I’m at heart a Jeffersonian, so I’ve often recited his famous “…were it left to
me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” But that phrase is too often used to blindly protect an industry rather than to promote a concept. Jefferson, like Gillmor, was more a man of concepts than rules. He often berated newspapers for their practice, but then he championed their right – and the right of all Americans – to define their own truth. Let the people think. It’s a messy system, but it pays off in the concept we most cherish. Or as the man from Monticello said:

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”

July 19, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

1 Comment »

  1. Clyde – Great post. We are actually going to have a podcast with Sarah Miles, long time journalist here in SF in August about this very topic. Should be interesting. Hope you are well.

    Comment by Bruce Reyes-Chow | July 21, 2007 | Reply

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