Ferguson puts citizen journalists in spotlight

Photo by Jamelle Bouie
Photo by Jamelle Bouie

A common theme I’ve tried to share over the past few months is accountability.

We expect and deserve an open and accountable government, and we strive to have transparency whenever the business sector and our communities overlap. Granted, there is more work to be done, but the theme of accountability has existed in our society for hundreds of years.

It’s why most developed countries have three branches of government — to create checks and balances necessary for a stable and fair government.

A common phrase refers to the media as the fourth branch of government, or the Fourth Estate. While the media has no official status in government, they also provide necessary checks and balances and are required to follow a code of conduct and ethics. It’s the media’s role to watch the watchmen, and provide fair, balanced and unbiased reporting.

I typically don’t have much respect for bloggers, or “citizen journalists” as some like to dub themselves. With no accountability they’re able to operate unchecked, leading to biased reporting and incorrect assertions, sometimes twisting facts to suit their own cause.

But recent events are causing me to rethink the importance and relevance of citizen journalists vs the mainstream media.

After an unarmed teenager was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in early August, the town was subjected to nights of unrest, as peaceful protests were allegedly broken up by an overbearing police force. Dozens of arrests were made. The hashtags #Ferguson and #MikeBrown trended globally on Twitter for days before a major media outlet showed up in town.

For the first three days of the protests, riots and unrest, interested outsiders had no official news source to check. But we were interested. #Ferguson was the top trend for several days running, and it only dropped off the trending list due to Twitter’s own internal algorithms, not because people stopped talking about it.

The major media did eventually arrive, although not to a very warm welcome. An Al Jazeera news crew were tear-gassed, while other journalists were arrested while sitting in McDonalds.

But by then, their audiences had moved on. People weren’t tuning in to CNN or Fox News for Ferguson coverage. They were getting it live — thanks to social media.

Last year, a Texan Senator named Wendy Davis stood and spoke for 11 hours in Parliament, unable to sit or even lean to rest. She did so in an attempt to block a bill restricting abortion in Texas. #StandWithWendy took off around the world, and the only place to follow the proceeding was on Twitter or through the Texas Parliament’s livestream. Davis may be the next Governor of Texas, but you won’t hear about it first on the six o’clock news.

From The Arab Springs uprising to the Global Financial Crisis, it’s all being covered first, and in many cases, more thoroughly, via social media.

So is there still a place for honest and accountable journalism anymore? I like to think so, it’s just harder to find. The best news journalism I’ve read lately was in Rolling Stone, a music magazine, or on Last Week Tonight, a comedy show.

What do you think? Where are you getting your news from these days? Drop a line to cale@sunpeaksnews.com or continue the discussion on the Sun Peaks News Facebook page.