Citizen journalists make new inroads into political reporting

An MSNBC contest will pick two amateur reporters this week to cover the party conventions.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nathan Robinson: The accordion-playing sophomore is a finalist to cover a presidential convention for MSNBC.com.
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If you click onto MSNBC.com for political updates, a month from now you may get some of your news from a fresh-faced, accordion-playing college sophomore named Nathan Robinson.

One of five finalists in a contest sponsored by MSNBC.com, NBC News, and MySpace, Mr. Robinson finds out Tuesday if he'll be one of two citizen journalists covering either the Democratic or Republican convention for MSNBC.com. For him, it's a chance to liven up mainstream journalism. For MSNBC, it's an attempt to bring a new perspective to the news.

Stuck with rising competition from Internet-mediated news, traditional media have been reaching out to Web-savvy citizen journalists to expand their online audiences. But only this year have major television networks and their web affiliates begun carving out reporting slots for nonprofessionals on one of their marquee topics: the presidential election.

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Besides MSNBC.com's Decision '08 Convention Contest, CNN's citizen media site, iReport, announced a film festival for reader-submitted videos from the campaign trail. ABC News' user-generated site, i-Caught, has asked readers to send in video thoughts on the most important issue of the campaign, with the best comments slated to appear on television.

The trend is surfacing even as heightened competition between traditional media and citizen media strains relations between professionals and amateurs, who lack formal training in journalism standards and often publish material without a rigorous vetting process.

"You can take the cynical view that citizen journalism is a buzzword now, or the sincere view that [the mainstream press] thinks this will illuminate what's going on and get closer to the real world," says Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University in Phoenix. "Or it's something in-between, which is most likely: some showmanship and some curiosity about trying new things."

The 100-plus citizen journalists who submitted video clips for MSNBC.com's contest certainly tried new things.

"I can play hardball with Chris Matthews / Outfox Fox News / Countdown with Keith till the moment the people choose," rapped one Harvard Law School graduate in his video.

Another contestant listed his credentials: "The role of citizen convention journalist is not really conventional at all, nor is it really even a journalist, so you really just have to be a citizen. And I checked. This guy is, like, totally a citizen," he says, flashing his own passport.

In his video, Robinson (dressed in a red tie and glasses) engaged in a political debate with himself (black bow tie, sans glasses) using split-screen technology. Though the native of Cambridge, England, wants to be a lawyer, he has dabbled in journalism. In high school, he hosted a politics show in his garage that aired on local cable. Now a college student at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Robinson blogs for The Huffington Post, a liberal website.

"Paid reporters are almost more handicapped than us because we have more freedom not just to inject our opinions but to be more creative," he says. "We don't have to conform to newspaper style-speak. I think we'll continue to grow, and major news outlets will have to try to compete on our turf rather than us on their's."

Robinson and the other top four contestants were selected by judges that included MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and MySpace cofounder Tom Anderson. The MySpace community is now voting on the finalists, who will get food, lodging, and travel but no pay.

Most professional reporters take a dim view of citizen-generated news, research suggests. Only 35 percent of national journalists and 36 percent of local journalists have a positive view of citizens posting news content on news organizations' websites, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Yet coverage can be enriched if professional and citizen journalists team up, says Russ Shaw, deputy editor for news at MSNBC.com. "Citizens can give us observational journalism that is probably from a slightly different perspective than the professional journalists there," he says. Sponsoring an online project like this "brings credibility.... It shows that you're not sitting in an ivory tower and that you're interested in what other people are observing."

Greater synergy between the two could translate into a surge in on-the-ground reporting. For example, a week after the media went to Zanesville, Ohio, to cover Barack Obama announcing his support for faith-based initiatives, citizen blogger Mayhill Fowler wrote a follow-up on how Zanesville residents felt about it.

"The whole second half of the story is the voter," says Ms. Fowler, who writes for OffTheBus, the Huffington Post's community-powered campaign news site. "That's where citizen journalism can pick up the slack."

Collaborative citizen journalism could also transform campaign coverage through ambitious fact-finding efforts, says OffTheBus director Amanda Michel. She cites an investigation where some 60 OffTheBus volunteers detailed former President Bill Clinton's powerful financial impact on Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, poring over everything from his book-tour itinerary to lists of people who stayed in the Lincoln bedroom during his presidency.

Mr. Gillmor cautions against overestimating citizen journalism's clout. "In national politics, the traditional media still have the most power and the most ability to influence the general public, after advertising," he says. But "you can't separate citizen journalism from traditional journalism. They have a symbiotic relationship."

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