Our View | Citizen Journalism in a Changing Landscape

Our View
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By The Signal Editorial Board

Let us demonstrate our command of the obvious for a moment: Journalism is changing.

We know. That’s not exactly Earth-shattering news. The modern multimedia environment is in a constant state of flux, and many news organizations, ours included, are working hard to deliver the news to readers wherever and whenever they want it, in whatever form they want, while still maintaining journalistic values that may seem old-fashioned to some.

And, of course, now more than ever, readers have many options to provide us feedback and input on our news coverage. As they should — we welcome and encourage reader input.

We bring this up now because one of our own regular columnists, Joshua Heath, wrote his most recent commentary as a letter offering his own suggestions on the question, “Where should The Signal go from here?”

It was a thoughtful piece. Josh, one of three local Democrats who share a rotating weekly opinion column in The Signal (we also have a rotating Republicans column), clearly spent a good bit of time pondering that question, and developing his answers. We appreciate his input, and we wanted to respond with a few thoughts of our own.

Josh makes some great suggestions, including a call for more human interest stories, and proactive reporting that goes beyond meeting agendas and covers stories people really care about.

We agree, but it bears pointing out that we are already doing those things. In fact, we have been pursuing those initiatives since the current Signal ownership and editorial management team took over in June. We are significantly expanding our newsroom staff and applying those resources to the pursuit of not only improved news coverage, but also a heavy emphasis on the human interest stories that will best connect with readers.

Josh also suggests that we make citizen journalism a bigger part of The Signal, and it’s a good idea — to a point.

We already do feature citizen journalism regularly. Josh’s own column is an example of it. (Most of the columnists who appear on our opinion pages are not Signal employees.) We also feature a full page of weekly news, called “Our Community,” in which all of the content is submitted by local residents. It’s a feature we may expand, but if we do, it will be for similar kinds of community-oriented content: Updates on local nonprofits, stories about youth achievements, and so on.

We’re not likely, however, to use citizen journalism in one of the other ways Josh suggested: as a means of covering tough stories. The example he gave was, if we heard from a local teacher who witnessed abusive behavior by a school principal, we should just have the teacher write the story.

That’s where we need to draw a line.

It’s one thing to utilize a citizen journalist to write a feel-good story about a school event or a charity fundraiser. It’s another altogether to entrust a non-staffer — a person connected to the story, and who has no formal journalism training or experience — to report and write a news story that needs to be investigated and vetted, must be written to fairly represent all sides, and may even have legal ramifications.

Citizen journalism has arisen both out of necessity — the economics of journalism aren’t what they used to be — and out of the fact that, unlike the “old days” when you needed a broadcast transmitter or a printing press to distribute the news, these days pretty much anyone with internet access can hang up a virtual shingle and call themselves a journalist. The results vary wildly in quality and credibility.

As First Amendment advocates we applaud this level of access and interactivity. But, we also believe in the value of quality journalism, produced by people who are trained in the nuances of the profession and have the skills and experience to cover the news in a fair, responsible manner while avoiding legal pitfalls.

Like many other professions, this one isn’t as simple as it may look from the outside. There used to be a joke running around City Hall (maybe it still does?) that anyone who drives a car in Santa Clarita thinks they are qualified to be a traffic engineer.

That, of course, is not true. It’s not any more true than suggesting it’s safe to ask someone to extract your aching tooth based on the fact that they have a nice smile, so they must be doing something right. “Here, just take these pliers…”

Again, we thank Josh for his input, and for caring enough to provide it. We’re looking forward to finding more new ways to get the community more involved, and telling the stories readers care about most. We welcome all readers’ ideas on how we can continue to improve the community news coverage — but we’re leaving the “hard news” stories to the professionals on our news team.   

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