I just spent a week in the Caribbean Sea with Holland America Lines on a cruise sponsored by National Review, a conservative magazine. Amongst the numerous sessions on foreign and domestic policy questions and presidential politics with mostly journalists and a few academics, activists and politicians, there was one on citizen journalism, the media equivalent of the Tea Party Movement.
The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, based in Alexandria, Va., staffed with "watchdogs," as the people covering government in all but six states are called, means to "break the monopoly of information" by the leading national media. To that end, the Center has sponsored investigative journalists to help "work against growing tide of mediocrity and bias in the media," according to Center materials.
But no less important than the determination to counteract the so-called "mainstream media" is the Center's mission to make up for the decline in the number of reporters employed by the print and broadcast organs caused by the rise of the Internet and talk radio, and the current economic recession.
The decline in reporters has been massive. This has caused alarm from everyone in the field that the daily coverage of government will be lost and billions of dollars will be misspent, wasted or stolen.
To deal with that concern, the Franklin Center (website: Watchdog.org) has a "strategic plan" that has four major components. The first is to work with investigative reporters affiliated with state-based think tanks and non-profit organizations, and maintain a network of independent Watchdog reporters.
Next is establishing statehouse news bureaus, non-existent in many cases, which report on state legislative actions in nearly 30 states. In California, there is the Pacific Research Institute and calwatchdog.org.
Then there is the Citizen Watchdog Program, in which the Center trains and equips citizen journalists to cover local government bodies and public officials. In many communities, the media rely on government press releases rather than their own independent investigations.
For those who fear that citizen journalists would lack the qualifications possessed by professional journalists, the Center provides training, research and editorial support.
Frequent sessions are held to "equip our reporters with strategies and tactics uniquely suited to their mission," enabling reporters "to become thorough, unbiased, accurate and well-versed in new technology and journalistic integrity."
The Center provides equipment, website and tech support. This means video backpacks, a delivery network for transmitting files, and training in developing effective stories, as well as troubleshooting technical failures and advising reporters on social media, multimedia editing and e-mail marketing.
More consequential than, although by no means unrelated to, the issue of professional training is whether this new form of journalism threatens to politicize journalism. As to this, Franklin Center spokesmen are perfectly candid. Its determination to "promote the education of the public about corruption, incompetent, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government," as they see it, is perfectly consistent with the purposes of a free press.
Although mass media are filled with all manner of things that range from the merely interesting, to the entertaining, to the downright titillating, the fundamental objective is to enable citizens, whose consent is necessary for government to exist and function, to be well informed so that they can judge soundly and act wisely. Many newspapers are identified with political names like Republic and Democrat or names that call attention to their function such as Tribune, Mercury or Argus, reminding us that for all of the talk about journalistic neutrality we get from the media, journalists are citizens too.
The Watchdog project is modeled on the Associated Press, which formed first in New York in the 1840s by providing correspondents in Albany who used the then new technology of the telegraph to send reports to as many local newspapers that subscribed to the service. Thus, all of them would not have to have their own reporter there, duplicating the work of the all the others. So began the inverted pyramid format for news stories, with the most important information first and the rest following in descending order of importance. Local editors could easily edit for length by cutting from the bottom.
Thanks to the Franklin Center, not only will Americans have access to information that they otherwise might not get, but they may participate more in self government by keeping track of government and informing their fellow citizens of its actions. That is cause for celebration that complements the Tea Party movement.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.