A Partial Blueprint for Becoming Citizen Journalists
By Djelloul Marbrook
The Atlantic’s recent story that libraries are moving to fill the vacuum left by the corporatization and consolidation of local news media is one of those rare American occasions when good news bores a hole of light through the maelstrom of bad news.
The idea is as promising as it is challenging. Local libraries depend on local political support, and politicians are unlikely to greet any improvement in local news coverage with enthusiasm. The lack of transparency caused by media consolidation into the hands of six right-wing oligarchs suits politicians just fine, even the so-called progressives among them.
But all news is essentially local, even when it comes from Washington. And the destruction of local news coverage by the greed-driven movement to consolidate the press is nothing less than a national tragedy. Here’s a modest example. When I was a news editor at The Washington Star our newsroom quickly noticed that almost to a man the Watergate villains came from places where the press was less than diligent, less than aggressive. The Watergate perps were accustomed to getting away with corruption and they brought that corruption to Washington, just as some of them (notably Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, former Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland) had brought it to county seats and state capitals. That’s how important a vigilant, independent press is.
Libraries with their space and high-speed Internet connections may not be the only resort for citizen journalists who aspire to fill the dangerous vacuum left by corporate greed. Bookstores, art galleries, indeed all commercial and public spaces devoted to community are potential headquarters for informal committees or individuals producing blogs, email reports and websites to share news and opinion.
Citizen journalists can be recruited from all walks of life—retirees, students, veterans. They can be nurses, lawyers, accountants, cops, farmers, anyone interested in finding out what is really going on in a community, not what the politicians tell you is going on. Those politicians leave paper trails of their good deeds and their wrongdoing, and those paper trails are public records accessible in town and city halls, county administrative buildings and other places where public records are kept. Those records, not what politicians tell constituents and reporters, tell the story of a community’s real life, its hidden life, the life all too many politicians seek to keep hidden. They may consist of town council or school board or zoning board minutes, or departmental reports to mayors and managers and supervisors, or accountants’ analyses, or the recommendations of consultants, or the budgets of the police, fire and other agencies. They’re all public, and they all tell much more than any politician is apt to tell you.
Television, and to some extent print media too, depends on talking heads, on imagery to convey the news, and all are often more concerned with dramatization than enlightenment. But the Founding Fathers left us a failsafe, the public nature of the proceedings of government. What is really happening is in the fine print. When government approves a contract, for example, that contract is on record somewhere, and an under-the-table deal between some local official and the contractor will suggest itself in a study of that contract and who signed it. This is exactly the kind of reporting the media are no longer doing, and their negligence is a danger to the republic. You can change that, not at the polls every two years but right now.
You don’t have to be a journalist to ferret out this information, to read and understand it, to share it, to comment about it. You just have to be curious and dogged. It doesn’t matter how well a story is written, it only matters that the story is written. Over time such citizen groups will become skilled if self-taught journalists persist, journalism schools and their high-priced classes notwithstanding. I promise you this, because I’m self-taught and a veteran news editor and reporter. Your experience will teach you.
The Internet, just as envisioned by its founder, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, is the shining hope of journalism, with constraints of its own, but not the financially daunting constraints of newspapers and TV stations, which require massive financial backing. Today the real estate of most newspapers is worth more than the newspapers.
Retirees and all our aging population are an incredible resource for this citizen project. Who better to study the decisions of a town council, for example, than a retired lawyer? Who better to study the police budget and annual report than a retired police officer? Who better to consider the local health care situation than a retired nurse? But they must not be daunted by their lack of reporting experience. If they can speak intelligibly they can do this job, they can rise to this challenge.
Many independent stores, such as booksellers, are trying to find ways to attract people to them, and this is one way they can do it. For example, the local book dealer can mount a 26-inch screen in the shop window to display local news and opinion and photographs. That’s journalism, that’s news reporting, and it counts. It can transform your community from a fiefdom of politicians to an implement of change for the better. It can keep local government honest. For example, what about that broken traffic light at Sixth and Newton? When will the town fix it? How much will it cost? What about that pothole at the corner of 8th and Columbia that has already blown out dozens of tires? Why did Tom Smith see the town’s snowplow clearing the private driveway of the mayor before all the main streets were cleared? Just asking the questions helps clear the air. Ask them. People will provide the answers as on the TV show “The Wisdom of the Crowd”. It’s called crowd-sourcing.
The news can be delivered in all sorts of ways: on digital screens, by email, in blogs, websites, almost any way you can imagine. The screens can be placed anywhere the public can see them. And the information can be revised at any time—corrected, improved, deleted.
An excellent example of such a blog, delivered by listserv to our email address every day, is the lively Gossips of Rivertown in Hudson, New York, which as of now is getting more than 12,000 page views a week. It covers the city council and many issues of interest not only to Hudson residents but also to residents of a wider area.
Think how exhilarating such a project can be, how it can inspire students to become journalists and inspire ordinary citizens to become active in their communities, how it can give hope to the voiceless, to the ignored. All you need is a computer, perhaps a tablet, a camera, and your own common sense.
Above all, don’t buy into the idea that journalism is for professionals. It’s not. It’s about refreshing the republic. It’s about keeping American government at all levels honest. It can do much more to change things than electing a demagogue who promises you everything while lining his own pockets. Take the responsibility for cleaning up American governance into your own hands, not on election day but right now. Every day. And, by the way, have fun.
Djelloul Marbrook is a member of the Writing for Peace Panel of Advisers and is serving as our Young Writers Fiction Judge. Marbrook is the acclaimed author of five books of fiction, five books of poetry, and five more books are currently forthcoming from Leaky Boot Press, United Kingdom. Marbrook maintains a lively presence on Twitter and Facebook. A U.S. Navy veteran and retired newspaper editor, he lives in the mid-Hudson Valley with his wife Marilyn. His newspaper career included the Providence (RI) Journal, the Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, the Baltimore Sun, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Washington Star, and Media News dailies in northeast Ohio and northern New Jersey. He is the editor-in-chief of Arabesques, a trilingual online and print literary quarterly.
Marbrook’s latest book of poetry is Nothing True Has A Name, published by Leaky Boot Press. These alchemical poems challenge our compulsion to categorize and pigeonhole. They inquire deeply into the passion for containment symbolized by classical Greek vessels. The poems seek to define the idea of ennobling elixirs. The image of galleys sailing on the winds and laden with Greek amphorae tied to each other by their necks haunts this collection. The poet concludes that names inevitably mislead us. He urges us to transcend them, not revel in them.
From Writing for Peace Adviser Dr. Margaret Flowers:
This week, following the recent announcement of a new National Defense Strategy that focuses on conflicts with great powers and a new arms race, the Pentagon announced an escalation of nuclear weapons development. The United States’ military is spread across the world, including several dangerous conflict areas that could develop into an all-out war, possibly in conflict with China or Russia. This comes at a time when US empire is fading, something the Pentagon also recognizes and the US is falling behind China economically.
2018 Young Writers Contest
Writing for Peace challenges young writers (ages 13-19) to expand their empathy skills by researching an unfamiliar culture and writing from the point-of-view of a character within that new world, while exploring social, political, and environmental pressures, and universal themes.
- The deadline for entrance is April 1st, 2018.
- There is no fee for participation.
- Writers, ages 13-19, may submit in one of three categories – poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.
Check out the complete guidelines here.
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