By Trace Sharp
One thing I hear from new bloggers who are interested in focusing on their communities or “citizen journalism” for lack of a better term is ‘How do I do it?’
It’s a very good question.
First of all, blogging is not going to replace traditional journalism. And the lines are fuzzy now because blogging has given anyone who wants it an online publishing platform to distribute and communicate. There are rules that journalists have to follow, sources have to be protected, relationships must be cultivated and a press pass isn’t going to hurt anybody.
An example: You see a car wreck. There are injuries so you decide to stop and take a picture. Well, you can’t. Traditional reporters know that in many states, including my home one of Tennessee, that a press pass needs to be readily available. You have to have a safety vest or you will be fined. You need to know that you have to stay out of the way of first responders as there are people’s lives at issue. It’s a small thing, but these things are important to remember.
Another example: No one likes an anonymous source but there are ways to get things attributed. Let’s say you get a tip on some political wrongdoing and you want to check it out. A great example of hyperlocal blogging where it’s done right is Enclave out of Nashville. He quotes a source, if he is editorializing he is very upfront about it and he focuses on what he knows. He also links (thus attributing) the writer who has made a statement and then will comment about it. But let’s say that your source has asked to be kept off the record. What do you do? My rule of thumb is I take the information and go and get someone to go on record with the information, I then have the story thus protecting the person who started the ball rolling. I have to make a decision if a person is just pissed off and trying to stir up stuff, if the information is valid and needs an investigation and I pretty much always wait for attribution or documentation to back up what’s going on which protects everyone.
Paperwork is king in liable and slander suits. Professional journalists, such as the folks at Texas Watchdog, know this. If you are going to wade into citizen journalism, then you have to follow those rules as well.
Another thing to remember is breaking stories such as the TVA Coal Ash Spill. Bloggers broke much of the story and gave it legs. This is different than the above two examples. Video was important, first-hand accounts were necessary and reporters and bloggers alike worked together to give a more comprehensive and detailed view of what happened. Reporters are not always on the front line of a story initially but bloggers, in this case, became the front wave. Although it was criticized a little bit, overall, it worked.
No one is expecting someone covering a story to be Bernstein and Woodward. And you’re not, quite frankly. In many ways, that old school grind of news is over. You also have to be aware of falling into a trap to break a story if you aren’t 100 percent sure that it’s accurate. Patience is important and you can lose your credibility quickly if you fall into tabloid sensationalism.
Investigative journalism is more about being patient, making sure it’s right and knowing that if you break something controversial that you are going to have to back it up.
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