The advent of bloggers and citizen journalists has challenged the traditional norms of journalism and news reporting. No longer must we rely on local television crews to deliver breaking news for there is likely an eye witness tweeting or posting at the scene. The Internet has changed the dynamics of news reporting: once, news reporting was the lofty realm of the trained and educated journalist; now, just about anyone can create and distribute information to a vast audience.
The playing field has been leveled. This new technology has had profound implications for the marginalized and disenfranchised. Would we, as westerners, ever have heard much about the 200 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram on April 15, 2014 without the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign (Kirkland, 2014)? What would we have learned about the Arab Spring if young revolutionaries had not shared their experiences on social media (Omidyar, 2014)? Would the Arab Spring have even succeeded with social media (Omidyar, 2014)?
The question then arises: are blogger and citizen journalists professional journalists? Bloggers and citizen journalists do not necessarily receive the education or training a professional journalists receives. This becomes an issue when information is not properly verified, facts are not checked or sources not properly vetted. However, a writer need not have worked for a traditional news outlet to exercise good judgment and utilize an ethical approach to news gathering and creation. I would argue that a ‘professional’ journalist is one who practices ethical journalism.
To examine this concept further, I took a look at Oconee County Observations author, Lee Becker, to determine whether he is a credible or ‘professional’ journalist. Oconee County Observations is a hyperlocal blog written to inform the citizens of Oconee County, Georgia about local developments. Lee Becker purports to be an amateur: “[t]his blog is one of my hobbies” (Becker, n.d.). But, perhaps he is selling himself short?
According to Stephen J.A. Ward, who defined criteria for digital media ethics, journalism can be defined in a few different ways (Ward, 2010). What is universally considered journalism, however, is writer with “highly developed skills, acquired usually through training or formal education… [who] honor certain ethical norms” (Ward, 2010). Lee Becker studied journalism as an undergraduate and holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communications (Becker, n.d.). Thus, it would seem he has had plenty of formal education. An examination of Becker’s ethics will reveal whether he is a ‘professional’ or an ‘amateur.’
While not explicitly identified in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, many journalists consider objectivity to be essential to ethical reporting. As a resident of Oconee County, Lee Becker must be considered to be an interested party in the goings-on of the county. This bias, however, is characteristic of hyperlocal blogging and should be expected. Plus, Becker uses multiple sources with differing points of view which lends credibility and equitability to his work. For instance, in “Commercial Development Leads To More Crime, District Attorney Told Oconee County Commissioners,” Becker quotes sources that provide insights into both the positive and negative aspects of commercial development. He quotes the District Attorney, Ken Mauldin, as he discusses the negative outcomes of commercial development:
“The more stores you have out there, you’re going to have more shop lifting,” Mauldin said. And it costs money to prosecute those who commit the crimes, he added. (Becker, n.d.)
To balance Mauldin’s point of view, he quotes the Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman, Melvin Davis, who expounds upon the benefits of commercial development:
“Any time a retail facility opens of this size (over 300 seats), we would expect the volume of business to make an impact on sales and SPLOST revenue for the County,” Davis wrote.
“Also, the projected new growth in commercial property tax for this facility will increase the County’s revenue,” according to Davis.
SPLOST is a reference to the county’s 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Becker strives to be responsible to the public by remaining “accurate, fair and transparent” which denotes he is making an effort to maintain the highest ethical standards (Becker, n.d.). In addition, Becker meets the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics standards in the following areas:
- He supports pieces with links to source material allowing readers to evaluate the accuracy of his articles themselves (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014).
- He serves as watchdog to local government action (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014).
- He encourages feedback and the exchange of ideas on his blog (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014).
Because of the high level of responsibility he employs with his writing, I consider Lee Becker a ‘professional’ journalist and Oconee County Observations a credible source of information. Is the label of ‘professional’ journalist important? It may be to some. Lee Becker seems not to care for such labels. As E.B. White said, “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter” (E.B. White as cited in Popova, 2012). That seems to be the model Becker employs. At the same time, though, a writer has “a responsibility to society… a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error” (E.B. White as cited in Popova, 2012). In other words, by taking up the pen, a writer has the obligation to be “accurate and fair” because she has the ultimate responsibility of imparting knowledge (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014).
Becker, L. (n.d.). Oconee County Observations. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://oconeecountyobservations.blogspot.com/
Kirkland, P. (2014). Can Twitter activism #BringBackOurGirls? Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/07/23/can-twitter-activism-bringbackourgirls/
Omidyar, P. (2014). Social Media: Enemy of the State or Power to the People? Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pierre-omidyar/social-media-enemy-of-the_b_4867421.html
Popova, M. (2012, April 17). E.B. White on the Responsibility and Role of the Writer. Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/eb-white-on-the-responsibility-and-role-of-the-writer/256005/
SPJ Code of Ethics. (2014). Retrieved March 2, 2015, from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.aspj.org/ecs8.asp
Ward, S. (2010, October 26). Digital Media Ethics. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/