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By treating amateur journalism as a threat, the UGC controversy ignores history

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By treating amateur journalism as a threat, the UGC controversy ignores history

Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 1, January 2010 The Scale and Origins of the Threat to Journalism

Graham Barnfield
‘With the Internet, everyone with an opinion can have their say and be heard. The poorest squirrel eater out there in the sticks, provided he has a decent Internet provider, can set up his Web page right alongside the rich kid in the suburbs. Technology and entertainment have levelled class distinctions and created a pure form of democracy.’ (Bachelder 2002: 165)

‘When our individual intentions are left to the wisdom of the crowd, our access to information becomes narrowed, and as a result, our view of the world and our perception of truth becomes dangerously distorted … For all their claims to be more democratic and honest, these supposedly editor-free social news sites are actually creating a more oligarchic and corrupt media.’ (Keen 2008: 94)

Introduction: Forgetting Our History
In the heat of the moment, a new trend can appear inevitable, as if it were the only possible answer to the demands of its time. Thus the trendy idea that the tradition of journalistic objectivity is doomed, seems more than a knee-jerk response to the historical decline of traditional, paid-for journalism; in today’s context, it has acquired the status of logical necessity. But the history of journalism tells us that its objectivity (or lack of) is not the inevitable corollary of professionalism (or absence thereof); equally, the current collision course between the idea of objectivity and the concept of the amateur, may turn out to be no more than an accident of history.
The Cult of the Amateur (2007/8) offers an insightful yet one-sided account of the threat to professional standards (more precisely, the standards associated with professionalism). Author Andrew Keen insists that reporting on events in the world should be synonymous with getting paid for doing it. Along pro-am lines, Keen is keen to maintain a division between serious reporting and insidiously, persistently trivial commentary; he predicts disastrous consequences should the line between professional and amateur become any more porous than it already is. True to form, he doesn’t do freebies for anyone.

There is some substance to this argument, as Andrew Calcutt demonstrates elsewhere in Proof. Professional reporters have close to a monopoly on length of time spent reporting. Even when supplying eyewitness accounts, or sifting through documents in an investigative fashion, other citizens – among whom I would number certain types of journalist – may sometimes add to the total of available information, comment and punditry; but only intermittently. That said, noting these real differences – marked out by training, resources and time – does not mean that truth and amateurism should be treated as everlasting enemies, forever locked in a fatal embrace.

History Inverted
In the blogosphere, Keen’s argument is more likely to appear in reverse. According to Media Lens (2009), payment and professionalization together drive the distortion and misrepresentation characteristic of corporate news media. In this claim there is a sense of history, of the same thing happening over and over again over time; but the one-dimensional view expressed here, is hardly less distorting than Keen’s one-sidedness. True, the professional code of ‘due impartiality’ does not guarantee objective reporting; often it has lent credibility to otherwise unbelievable depictions of good versus evil. However, the fact that some professional reporters have filed woefully inaccurate, disgracefully biased copy, does not mean that inaccurate, biased reporting is all we can ever expect to get from the professional reporter. This is what Media Lens sees as the essential trend within professional reporting; but taking professional to mean propensity for distortion, is to misrepresent contingent connections (the coincidence of professional reporting with distorting practices) as necessary relations (as if professional reporting is an inherently distorting process). This is itself a warped view: it is as one-sided as Keen, though looking at professional journalism from the other side.

Taking the long view, it would make sense to treat the Keen-ish linkage between amateur journalism and avoiding the truth as a present-day contingency; the same is true of the obverse position, represented by Media Lens.

‘Objectivity’ and the Pro-Am Debate
Historians of American journalism point to the decades in which objectivity became central to the professional ethics favoured by big city newspapers (Schudson 1978: 77-87). Suspicion is rife (now) that deploying a scientific methodology (then) served to inflate the public standing of journalists, propelling them away from ‘hack’ status towards the scientific reputation enjoyed by medicine. Meanwhile, readers who valued a partisan, biased and entertaining press were making way for those who wanted facts and a journalistic profession trained to supply them (Kaplan 2002).
Whenever a scientific method was propounded, it was usually couched in terms of objectivity. This terminology has been open to too main interpretations: those who see objectivity as a way to approximate closely the natural world, human society and the dynamics of both; and the growing chorus of voices for whom the ‘objective’ approach was merely a rhetorical strategy for boosting one’s own authority and legitimacy.

Some of today’s enthusiasm for user generated content is also an expression of the latter position, while contemporary concerns over UGC being inherently untruthful are redolent with reaction against its ascendancy. In the hard sciences, the shifting balance of power between these two stances led, in part, to the Sokal affair (Sokal and Bricmont 1998), in which a disgruntled, old school scientist successfully hoaxed a group of cultural relativists with a spoof article that was subsequently revealed as a parody of their own worst traits.

In today’s journalism as in academia, the (anti-)epistemology of relativism rules (more or less). Each sector has its own group of radical dissenters from relativism, but in seeking to overthrow the regime which itself overthrew the rule of ‘objectivity’, most of these dissidents can only think of resorting to the status quo ante. Thus the current controversy over professional versus amateur, summarised above as Keen v Media Lens, is also part of an ongoing, epistemological struggle between essentialism and relativism.

The Real History of Pro-Am
The turn to objectivity among the salaried staff of newspapers was partly an attempt on their part to distinguish themselves from a pool of journalists which included wage-earning hacks, jobbing semi-professionals, and unpaid enthusiasts (typically, a gentleman with private income). The latter were ensconced in a publishing industry which barely distinguished the hobbyist from the autodidact, or self-publishing from vanity publishing. The trend towards professionalism can be seen in the hard sciences too, where French civil servant Nicolas Camille Flammarion’s frightening work-rate resulted in countless volumes of popular science and astronomy. Flammarion was so prolific he even found time to invent the sci-fi alien (Stableford 2002).

Thus the man of letters came to be divided into the paid professional on the one hand, and the amateur on the other; though no one felt the need to describe these transformations as a ‘crisis of journalism’. The overlap of science and amateur journalism continued into the twentieth century: weird fiction pioneer HP Lovecraft was among the writers who got into print via this route (Joshi 2002).

Around a century ago, a distinctive cohort of amateurs within publishing thrived alongside a more profitable and prestigious newspaper industry, with objectivity enshrined as its professional ethic. Newsgathering and assembling ‘the facts’, mediated through the idea of journalists having a ‘nose for a story’, was standard practice – and not just in journalism. Techniques associated with the big city newsroom came to play a foundational role in empirical sociology. Former news reporter Robert Park organised University of Chicago researchers around distinctive beats; and the raw material compiled in subsequent monographs came to resemble muckraking accounts of urban hardship and low life (Linder 1996). Thus did US social science present itself as more scientific by emphasising its close proximity to the methods of the professional newspaper reporter.

In the years after the Second World War, US intellectuals moved some distance from this position. In different ways, the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School combined a sceptical approach to claims of scientific objectivity with concern about the potentially totalitarian consequences of mass media. Unease about claims to know the greater truth was fuelled by recent experience of fascism and Stalinism. Fears were focused on industrialised, mainstream media; indeed, the first generation of critical theorists made few direct references to amateur journalism. But in their dual capacity as junior professors and amateur/semi-professional journalists, they were affected by the disappearance of financial advantages such as low rent and plentiful freelance opportunities, which had been enjoyed by the previous generation of Depression-era intellectuals. Perhaps the new generation’s argument that corporate employment sapped the strength of independent journalism, was partly a response to their own experience of newly straitened circumstances.
Note that the trend of the time was to equate professionalism with a propensity for distortion (the Media Lens position), in contrast to that side of today’s debate (Keen and company), which blames the ‘cult of the amateur’.

Encountering Dwight Macdonald
One notable voice was that of Dwight Macdonald. In an Encounter essay published in 1956, he praised London for hosting seven weekly publications – and two dailies – which he ‘continues to marvel at’ (1957: 140). With the exception of The Listener (1929-1991), all seven weeklies remain in circulation to this day. Comparing such titles to what he saw as a moribund US marketplace, Macdonald was full of praise for London’s weekly news magazines, which he described as running on a voluntary basis. In his judgement, the financial position of their writers gave no indication as to the quality of their writing: ‘the amateur is not necessarily inferior in skill to the professional; the difference between them is simply that the former does because he wants to what the latter does for pay.’ (1957: 141)

Many contributors to London-based weeklies were astute observers of British society, just as Macdonald describes them. Some of them had other jobs, not necessarily in journalism, and they will have been writing for the Spectator or New Statesman because they wanted to (and because the editors of these publications wanted them to). But they were also paid for doing so: Macdonald miscalculated this aspect of their financial status. He also appears to have adopted the tone of an anthropologist revealing a subculture previously unknown to American readers. Furthermore, he praised the British weeklies for targeting an intelligent general readership – an ambition widely shared among US intellectuals until Macdonald himself lambasted it as ‘midcult’. But for all his inconsistencies, Macdonald’s point that high quality journalism can result from low budget operations, still stands.

Prolonging the Problems with Macdonald
In recent years, bloggers such as Phil Nugent and Yule Heibel have stumbled across Macdonald’s ‘Amateur Journalism’, and have seen themselves reflected in it. Linking one’s output to Macdonald’s essay is risky, since it is heavily flawed. The botched account of who gets paid for doing what is significant since Macdonald starts out by defining his position (and the position of journalism) by reference to the dividing line between amateur and professional. Later on, the question of payment ceases to be his reference point, and he moves to define good journalism as a matter of spirit and sensibility, including ‘freedom with off-the-cuff value judgements’ and ‘jaunty expertise’. He portrays localised pockets of press excellence as a product of class divisions in 1950s Britain: these publishing gems appear causally connected to ‘the degradation of the rest’ (1957: 145-146). Popular newspapers are slotted into the mass culture paradigm. Even the Manchester Guardian seems to have relocated to London almost a decade early!

Macdonald’s biographer notes his extraordinary enthusiasm for London, which he visited in June 1956 (Wreszin 1995: 309-313) and returned to the following summer. Macdonald’s liking for London may have influenced his perceptions of the seven weeklies, which themselves were – according to subsequent critics – corrupted by over-specialism and academia. Indeed, at the very moment when Macdonald was flying away home to the United States of America, Britain’s amateur journalism may already have been on its last legs. At least, this is how it is depicted in a recent, retrospective narrative of catastrophe (Schwarz 2002) which nonetheless pre-empted the current, doom-laden discussion of Web 2.0.

Pro-Am Revisited
The focus has moved to professional journalism, now presented as the victim of UGC. Whereas amateur journalism was only recently an object of mourning, suddenly it is recast as a burgeoning, threatening development. But today’s critics of ‘the cult of the amateur’ are guilty of disconnecting their target from both content and context. No wonder their aim is wide of the mark.

Macdonald praised so-called amateurism, by which he meant literary London’s publications, because it seemed to offer a well-informed and thoughtful account of matters of public interest. Compared to a hastily written tweet or status update, this was undoubtedly the case. Equally, Macdonald’s observations presuppose readers who were both ready and hungry for detailed reviews and long form essays on such matters. Largely absent nowadays, this kind of readership could only be bemused by the highly personal outbursts which comprise so much of today’s internet traffic.
Whether this latter represents the triumph of the trivial or a revised public sphere in which the personal is central, is a question for another day. But using the amateur as the category to explain the pending extinction of the professional, objective reporter seems myopic, to say the least. It means wrenching amateur journalism from the earlier settings in which it survived and thrived, and recasting it as an inherently destructive force. It means presuming that it has nothing good to say, and denying that it may say it well, regardless of any external, social pressures that might be driving more trivial, superficial and untruthful media activities.

While Anglo-American pundits sulk or celebrate, other parts of the world bear witness to more political, outward-facing forms of amateur journalism. In Malaysia, for instance, oppositional blogs played a significant role in recent elections (Tan and Ibrahim 2008). Ultimately we get the Web 2.0, the public sphere and the journalism – whether professional or amateur – we deserve. Blaming the form it’s delivered in won’t change this.

Graham Barnfield co-edited Reconstruction Vol. 8, No. 1: Class, Culture and Public Intellectuals. He is programme leader of BA (Hons) Journalism, UEL.

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