Oconee County Observations and Citizen Journalism

The rise of citizen journalism has prompted new discussions centered on ethics in the digital age of news reporting. To participation in this discussion, in the following, I will evaluate the author’s credibility and quality of the blog, Oconee County Observations, by comparing it to the Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) Code of Ethics. I will also determine what the purpose of this site is and if there is a bias. Or if the writer takes steps to verify information and report truthfully and accurately. I will also present my opinion on whether or not someone reporting news should be labeled as “professional” or not and if everyone should be held to the same ethical standards regardless of professional classification. And if “non-professionals” show good judgment, assemble information for balanced stories to build up credibility. Lastly, I will consider how the rise of citizen journalism has changed the way we receive knowledge and what we know and the advantages and challenges attributed to the presence of these new writers.

Oconee County Observations

Author’s credibility. Lee Becker is the author of Oconee County Observations, a BlogSpot blog.  According to the information found on this blog, Lee says he’s a Mass Communications Ph.D. who has been blogging since 2006. He states “This blog is one of my hobbies,” and that he has lived in this county since 1997 and plans to retire there.  By Googling “Lee Becker Ph.D. Mass Communication University of Wisconsin-Madison” I found that he is professor of Journalism at Grady College University of Georgia. Becker’s background and credentials certainly qualify him as professional journalist and make him a credible source of information.

Purpose and Bias. However, after reading his blog post, Oconee County Commissioners to Consider Human Resources Policy That Would Strengthen the Power of the Chairman, I did not perceive the purpose of his blog is to provide information about his county in an ethical way. He did not adhere to the Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) Code of Ethics. Although he offers a variety of proposed “facts,” it does not seem to me that he took steps to verify information, report truthfully or accurately.

To me it seems as though this blog is an example of opinion journalism that seeks to comment upon events and issues, with or without verification (Ward, n.d) and whose purpose may be to persuade its readers towards its biases.

For example, Becker writes in his blog:

Contrary to the Organizational Policy adopted by the Board of Commissioners [BOC] in August of 2009, the document makes the chair of the Board of Commissioners [Melvin Davis] and the county administrative officer equals in key personnel matters.

 

SPJ Code of Ethics. Under the SPJ Code of Ethics principle “Seek the Truth and Report,” is the tenant “provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.” The above extraction from Becker’s blog references the “Organizational Policy,” a document that he states the Board of Commissioners adopted. Yet, Becker does not provide access to the actual document or evidence confirming the Board of Commissioners adoption of it.

From my perspective, the title jumped out to me as a bias in claiming a new policy would “strengthen the power of the Chairman” of the Board of Commissioners. He follows up in his blog by stating that the “document [Organizational Policy] makes the chair of the Board of Commissioner and the county administrative officer equals in key personnel matters.” But he does not source the chair of the Board of Commissioner or the county administrative officers job descriptions or responsibilities. Providing such evidence would assist his readers to come to their own conclusion. In addition, Becker implies that giving more power to the Chairman is not a good idea:

Davis, who largely controls the agenda for BOC meetings, did not include the item [unanimous recommendation of the Citizen Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs] on the agenda released on Friday of last week

 

This instance violates the tenant stating journalist should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it, Use original sources whenever possible.”  I am not sure that Becker uses any sources other than links to his previous blog posts. Most of what he offers in his blog is hearsay:

Gentry sent BOC Chairman Melvin Davis an email message on Wednesday morning of last week reporting on the unanimous recommendation of the Citizen Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs

 

Where did he get this information from? Did he see the email or get a copy of it? Is Becker a “source who is a direct participant of the story but not a witness” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2010, p. 84) and not telling us?

Do labels “Professional” and “Non-Professional” Matter?

In my opinion, it does matter if someone reporting news is labeled as a “professional” or not.  Professional journalist are trained and charged with the responsibility of reporting news ethically by the Professional Journalist Code of Ethics (SPJ Code). And according to the Social Responsible of the Press, the public has the right to expect and demand high standards of reporting from professional news organizations (Baran 2010). Living up to the high standards expected of journalist seems a daunting tasks often not fulfilled. I would not apply the same ethical expectations to non-professional journalist who are untrained.

Labeling one “professional” or “non-professional,” is also helpful in determining what my expectations are and are not of journalist. However, in considering the normative approach, I do believe there are non-professional writers capable of publishing responsibly because they have the skills and the commitment to ethics (Ward n.d). Ashley Robinson, a writer for Independent Fashion Bloggers, who considers herself a professional/hobby blogger is an example of “non-professional,” and informs other bloggers on how to show good judgment, assemble information for balanced stories, and build up credibility (Robinson 2013).

On the other hand, Becker is a professional who makes no attempt to do so. I would perhaps give him a pass if he were blogging about trivial subjects like his opinion on the best motorcycles or vacation spots. From my perspective, Becker, a journalism expert, should be accountable for messages he puts out to his readers ( Robinson 2013), because what he writes can potentially affect constituent’s beliefs and attitudes of county officials and decisions they will make in accordance with their perceptions.

 The way we receive knowledge and what we know

Becker’s blog is one of the many examples of citizen journalism. Defined by journalist Patrick Lewis as “witnessing, recording and sharing,” Lewis (2011) it is characterized by the freedom of expression and universal access that the internet and social media provides (Louge, 2011). Social media tools, such as blogs, Twitter or Instagram, have created the opportunity for the public to express ideas, contribute knowledge and report news almost instantaneously. And often in breaking news, it is individuals at the scene of an event who are first to share news captured on their mobile devices.

This past Monday, October 26, 2015, around 8:15 pm I happened to be cruising on my Instagram’s timeline. A friend re-posted a video showing a white resource police officer grabbing a black female student, throwing her out of her chair and across the room before sitting on her and placing her in handcuffs.

I wanted to know more about this video and googled the officer’s name, which was provided as a hashtag in the Instagram post. I found an online news article, Deputy Ben Fields: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know, that includes the video from Instagram along with information about the police officer and story updates just within hours of when the video was originally posted. The article had been updated a second time one day later to include tweets of the arrested student’s peers and statement from the teacher corroborating that the female student had done nothing to provoke the police officer.

 Advantages and Challenges of Citizen Journalism

This particular example illustrates how citizen journalism can provide important evidence that exposes societal injustices and can serve to incite accountability. After an investigation ensuing the outcry by social media users, parents, administrators, officials and media attention the police officer was terminated from his position.


Though there are many advantages to this type of citizen journalism, there are also challenges that are attributed to the presence of these news writers.In his TedTalks presentation, “Crowdsourcing the News,” Journalist Patrick Lewis explains how verifying evidence of citizen journalism can be difficult, yet rewarding. In investigating the death of an African American male while being deported on a plane by officials, a passenger who witnessed the tragic event tweeted about the events in question. Patrick Lewis, tells us that this was one of five passengers, that he was faced with the challenge of tracking down to verify the actual events surrounding the deported man’s death. Moreover, one of the primary goals of major news organizations is to report with objectivity. Another challenge major news organization may face with incorporating citizens journalism is biases and lack of verification.  Louge (2011) reiterates that citizen journalist rarely, if ever, check their facts and there’s no way of knowing if they have or not. Also their content can included personal biases or even be “bogus,” (Ward n.d).

Conclusion

After evaluating the Oconee County Observations blog and researching its authors I determined this blog fell under the category of opinion journalism and did not adhere to SPJ Code of Ethics, even though the author Lee Becker is a professor of journalism at a University. Should professionals be held accountable even when blogging under the word “hobby?” In his case, my opinion is yes, because of his credentials and the nature of the news his blog provided. I also feel that the labels “professional” and “non-professional,” is important in helping me discern what type of journalism I am encountering and what my expectations should be. Do I have the same high expectations for non-professionals as I do professionals? Not at all, but at the same time, there is no reason a “non-professional” cannot take the initiative to adhere to professional standards. Lastly, citizen journalism, though it helps to spread significant news quickly and is a tool used to hold those members of society accountable and oust faulty reporting the challenge attributed to it is the effort it takes to verify evidence and overcome bias and fake reporting.

References

Baran, S. J. (2015). Introduction to mass communication: Media literacy and culture (8thed.).Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Becker, L. (2015, October 26) Oconee county commissioners to consider human resources policy that would strengthen the power of the chairman. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

http://www.oconeecountyobservations.org/

Cleary, T. (2015, October 26) Deputy Ben Fields: 5 fast facts you need to know.

Retrieved from http://heavy.com/news/2015/10/ben-fields-richland-county-south-carolina-sheriff-deputy-spring-valley-high-school-photo-football-coach-bodybuilder-cop-student-desk-video-complaints/

Lewis, P. (2011, April) Crowd sourcing the news. TedTalks.org. [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_lewis_crowdsourcing_the_news

Louge, J. (2011, November 6) The pros and cons of citizen journalism.
https://emersonecom.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/the-pros-and-cons-of-citizen-journalism/

Robinson, A (2013, April 15)7 Signs you might be a professional blogger. Independent Fashion Bloggers. Retrieved from http://heartifb.com/2013/04/15/7-signs-might-be-professional-blogger/

Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics (2014, September 6). Society of Professional Journalist. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Ward, Steven J.A. (n.d) Digital media ethics. University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics. Retrieved from http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/

University of Georgia Grady College Directory (n.d) Retrieved from. http://grady.uga.edu/directory/profile2/becker

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