Friday, March 26, 2010

News Feature | On Becoming a Citizen Journalist; Overcoming Fear to Get Out the Story

Susan Klopfer is the author of Who Killed Emmett Till?, the story of a Chicago youngster whose horrific murder in 1955 was the spark that ignited the modern civil rights movement. Klopfer has written two others books based in the Mississippi Delta, researching and uncovering civil rights murders taking place from the 1950s to the late 1990s. She has won journalism awards for her investigative reporting in Missouri.

By Susan Klopfer, with Fred Klopfer, Ph.D.

Citizen journalists are needed now more than ever. Who else is going to shake up this world and take the right photographs? Ask the right questions? Not always the mainstream media. Too often traditional "paid" journalist seek the comfort of the herd and the real story -- or the story behind the news -- is often lost.

So, who are Citizen journalists and what prompts them to seek and report news? Are they easily scared? Should they be?

The people who are Citizen Journalists, for the most part, are every-day people without professional journalism training. They use today's new technological tools and the global distribution of the Internet to create, add to or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others.

They might write or blog about a county council meeting on add to the conversation in an online forum. Or they might fact-check a newspaper article and point out factual errors or bias on their website.

Today's citizen journalist might take a digital photo to record a newsworthy event happening in their town or suburb -- police officers beating protestors -- and post it online before the event ever hits traditional news. Or they might record a similar action and post it on YouTube or upload it to CNN. Or podcast their findings.

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Video footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the '60s taken by Abraham Zapruder and footage of police beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in the'80s recorded by George Holliday. Both were citizens on the scene.
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This two-part news feature helps to understand the possibilities and basic requirements of being a first-rate Citizen Journalist, but then moves on to look at a common emotion faced by the first-time reporter -- overcoming fear to get out the story.

Part I The Basics

So if you are ready to warm up your notebook computer (Does anyone sharpen a pencil anymore?) and unpack your digital camera with something more in mind than capturing the best parts of your family vacation, this guide is for you.

First piece of advice: learn basic reporting techniques and you will be taken way more seriously. Here is a classic reporting book that provides a solid starting point with excellent introduction to the various elements of good journalism ... quite perfect for a beginner with advanced emphasis on reporting and writing, as well.

News Reporting and Writing by the Misssouri Group offers a step-by-step approach to journalismm that comes from years in the field and in the classroom. Through extensive contemporary examples and dependable, no-frills advice, future journalist learn reporting and writing skills they need to become effective journalists in every medium and for every beat.

There's a workbook to accompany this 9th edition.

You might get by with skipping a basic reporting book (used by college students in major journalism programs) but you won't want to skip the Reporter/Editor's Bible ... The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law.

The world is divided into people who become physically ill when they see punctuation, grammer mistakes or "wrong words" in print, and those who don't. If you mind such things as the proper use of "there, their or they're" and if you want to be taken seriously by most of your readers, this Bible is The Best Journalism Tool ever invented.

Countless newspapers and other publications base their style guides on this manual with its easy to find entries that include issues of spelling, punctuation, grammar ("The couple were wed Monday afternoon"), abbreviation, capitalization ("Popsicle and Dumpster are, tollhouse cookies aren't"), hyphenation and frequently misused words (using "utilize" when "use" will do just fine, thank you). Longer discussions of things such as weather terms and sports terms are given as well.

Plus the AP manual features separate sections on business writing, libel, and copyright. No Citizen Journalist can leave home without it!

If you want to get a little fancier, take a look at The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, written for the New York Times editors and writers, but an excellent, up-to-date resource for anyone's use.

"Should you use Native Americans or American Indians? Debark or disembark? Did you know that thermos is no longer a trademark, but that Popsicle and Dumpster are?"

Do you have and understand how to use the newest tools and resources to become a citizen journalist? For this, you are on your own. No print book is going to be so current as to help you make decisions on equipment. You are simply going to have to keep up with technology.

One more suggestion: Don't forget biographies of news greats!

Younger readers might not recognize the name Edward R. Murrow, yet Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards introduces him as one of broadcasting's pioneers and is a must-read.

A pioneering woman, Ida B. Wells, must be remembered for her early reporting on lynching statistics. Enslaved from birth, Wells was orphaned at an early age but went on to become a schoolteacher, journalist and activist who fought for the right of black women to vote, helped to create the NAACP and almost single-handedly halted the horrific practice of lynching through her investigative reporting skills. Paula J. Giddings captures this story in Ida: A Sword Among Lions; Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching.

Of course there is controversy over the term citizen journalism, because many professional journalists believe that only a trained journalist can understand the rigors and ethics involved in reporting the news. (Yet, there are many trained journalists who practice what might be considered citizen journalism by writing their own blogs or commentary online outside of the traditional journalism hierarchy.)

You can come into your own as a citizen journalist if you are aware of and follow top journalistic practices. Of course, you must have passion and drive.

Ready to report to work? You'll find your job as Citizen Journalist aided by these and other important works. Now start reading and best of luck in your journalistic endeavors.

Part II Overcoming Fear

...and you think fear isn't being using to drive off truth??

Sometimes, as a citizen journalist, I'm asked if it scares me to confront some people who I normally would not want to spend much time with, say members of a racist group like the Concerned Citizens Councils? Or people who have committed crimes and have gotten away with what they have done.

My answer is 'no.' I am not afraid of asking any question or of snooping around. If I were afraid, someone would smell my fear and then give me something to be afraid about.

Yet, when working a story, the need to confront and conquer fear can be part of the task. I am lucky to be married to a psychologist, and in preparing the second part of this article, we talked about considering some frequent causes of fear, and suggestions for how to get the story out anyway.

Susan: Sometimes you may be afraid that there is some really important part of your story that you must be missing. After all, if it is that obvious, why hasn’t anyone else talked about it before now?

Fred: Let me tell you the deep, dark secret. Sometimes, what is obvious to you isn’t obvious to others. You may have more background, know the right person, or simply have been the first one to piece it together. You may have done more homework on it. Somebody has to be first, and the story is better sometimes just by being first.

Sometimes others may know the story, but do not have the courage or interest that you do in telling it. Or they may have bosses (like editors or publishers) who definitely don’t want to be first – they don’t want to scare off the advertisers. If that is the case, you will actually be doing them a favor to get out the story first. Then others can follow, perhaps with more detail or resources.

If you are the first, or the first in a long time, or the first with wide circulation to get out a story, you may be afraid that you’ll be attacked. Guess what? Worry if you are not attacked. In that case maybe you haven’t made the story relevant enough to stir up the passions of others.

Write more. Write harder. Write meaner. Use humor.

Susan: If you don’t have enemies, you haven’t made a difference. If you are in some way attacking the established old guard, they are, by definition, established. And are, by definition, a guard. Of course they will attack. Keep your lawyer's number handy. Remember, prosecutors and police are allowed to lie to you if they question you – that is why you need your lawyer around.

Fred: Of course, another deep fear we have is that we may not know enough about the subject, and that if we knew more, we would know the story is ridiculous. We will only be making our ignorance obvious to the rest of world. If that is the basis for your reluctance, I can remind you of three things.

First, no one knows it all. Secondly, those who do know more are not talking. Knowledge not shared does not matter. Third, there are many people who make a great deal of money saying things they know to be short-sighted or downright untruthful.

Susan: For anyone with doubt, I'd say they should consider the recent health care debate. I've been amazed at the bullying tactics that went on -- was New Gingrich even listening to himself when he said the vote represented a coup d'etat?

Fred: While I am not suggesting you to do so on purpose – you do need to live with yourself and worrying yourself to death that you may not know everything there is to know about your topic is silly. You need to know enough to make your point. If others know more, and want to argue with you, so much the better. You then have to raise the quality of your argument, and both you and the other party get more publicity.

Susan: Persons who are citizen journalists should love the unknown -- not fear it. The unknown is the land of opportunity for story tellers.

Fred: And let me relieve one more fear you may have. Even if you have complete mastery of the topic and perfect recall, you still only have one perspective. No one sees it all.

The worst case for police investigations is to have more than one eyewitness. After all, how can two or more people see the same thing, but see it differently. It happens all the time. Memory is constructive – not a videotape. When remembering events, we add and subtract things for meaning. Not on purpose. Not even with awareness. It is just the way our brains work. Your story is always true for you if you want it to be. Someone else’s truth may be different. That is why there is no one account of history. Different histories happen to different people at the same time. Make yours fascinating, passionate, and glorious to tell.

Susan: This does not mean to qualify everything you write in terms of ‘it seems to me,’ ‘in my opinion,’ ‘from my perspective,’ and so on. If you want to write like that, join a university faculty. Outside of academia, no one wants to read timid stories.

Fred: Another trick to limit fear is to verify your more controversial statements, unless they are painfully obvious. Quoting somebody else makes it truer in the minds of most people. And if you can’t find a quote, get someone to give it to you in an interview. If you can’t get someone to repeat the point you are trying to make, then the subject isn’t exciting enough. Make it more interesting. Make your story the subject of dinner conversation. Then your fear won’t give you a stomach ache.

So go out there and make your enemies afraid of you -- not the other way around.

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