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Digital media has forever changed journalism. There’s no going back to a time when the audience was captive and the conversation was almost completely one-way. And most of the traditional news jobs that have gone away are not coming back. But at least one doomsday scenario for people who earn their living as journalists has not come true: Citizen journalists aren’t replacing career journalists when it comes to original reporting.
Don’t misunderstand me: Citizen journalism is also here to stay. Non-career journalists will continue to contribute to news-gathering in valuable ways, like allowing us all to witness police brutality. Each one of those videos of a cop shooting an unarmed black man was an act of journalism. Citizen journalists also contribute valuable feedback and specialized know-how to more traditional reports.
Career journalists (I reject the term “professional journalist” because it’s not a licensed profession and, by constitutional design, not reserved for an elite group) are still central to the news because they are tested. They’ve learned and sharpened their craft by doing, by making mistakes and then correcting them. They’ve interviewed countless people and know how to judge people’s credibility. They’ve written articles that were unfair to people and learned how to avoid repeating the mistake. They’re practiced at distinguishing between good sources and bad sources. They’ve made, in many cases, thousands and thousands of news judgments, day after day, and now that critical-thought process is automatic. They’re proficient storytellers.
So we still rely on career journalists because we need people fully dedicated to the endeavor. Modern Americans hunger for information and, I hope, regard journalists as watchdogs checking the power of governments and corporations. We are dependent on them to bear witness in places we can’t go. Their measured and dispassionate reports guide how we feel about climate change and who we’ll vote for. An informed citizenry is indispensable in any democracy. For that we need people on the case full time.