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The Panacea: Citizen and Pro Journalists as Robots

When I read Rodney Brooks’ book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, I was struck by one insight. He wrote that Japan has an aging population, it will need help from Third-World immigrants. However, it does not want a flood of immigrants. So, Brooks says that they are trying to develop robot like machines that can be controlled from afar.

So rather having an immigrant lift your aging mother from a bed directly, you have a robotic arm controlled via computer by a someone in a far away land do it. Robots are not smart enough to do a lot tasks by themselves, but if they are remotely controlled by a human, they can do thousands of tasks, even delicate ones.

So now that brings us to our citizen journalists as robots controlled by professional journalists or better yet professional journalists controlled by citizens or the true panacea for higher quality journalism is to have it both ways.

Here is the experiment at work. Robert Scoble, whom the BBC calls the blogger and videoblogger extraordinaire, was at the World Economic Forum in Davos interviewing folks for his website, and BBC blogger Tim Weber watched as Scoble interviewed Marc Benioff, a Davos participant:

…not with a big video camera but a small Nokia mobile phone, that sent a live video stream of the interview to his website. So far, so ambitious. Now comes the stunner. While he was doing the interview, Robert saw live on his phone screen the comments and questions posted by his viewers.

Just to illustrate how it works: When Marc pulled me into the conversation, within half a minute Robert had live on his screen a reader’s query about the BBC’s video-on-demand policy. Robert asked me the question straight away, and as we continued talking about the mobile phone industry and video on the web, more BBC-related queries piled up.

Since a citizen journalist shouldn’t be expected to do the delicate task of doing a professional interview and since a professional journalist shouldn’t be expected to do the complicated task of getting citizens involved on the scene when he or she is out on a interview, we now can bring in help from afar via technology, just as we would if we were really talking about robots.

Now this is extremely big — a stunner really — because it can change the equation of how news is gathered and reported, especially for smaller scale equations like with my Representative Journalism idea where groups of a thousand or smaller can hire their own journalists.

Just as Scoble did, if I am a reporter, I would use Twitter to tell my audience that I am on my way to interview Mr. Big. In five minutes, I will be live streaming the interview back to my website or to your iPhone, please jump in with your questions.

Or if you are a citizen journalist reporting on Mr. Big, you Twitter whichever newsrooms might be interested in the interview. The professional editors log on to your livestream at your website or on their cell phones and can do two things: 1) quickly verify that you are in fact interviewing Mr. Big, and 2) can feed you questions.  The mainstream then has a verified, professionally enhanced interview that it can use in its stories. Even when things happen spontaneously.

The citizen journalist gets to do a fun, exciting or interesting interview, maybe with monetary compensation, without worrying about the more complicated stuff that is necessary to finish a full-blown story. The mainstream media expand their reporting resources.  

Of course, the real panacea is that pro and amateur journalists Twitter their editors and citizen bases at the same time. So during an interview  the reporter, the editors and the citizenery all are weighing into the interview. It is putting Jay Rosen’s Beatblogging into real time, any time. It is citizen, civic and public journalism Nirvana.

7 Responses to “The Panacea: Citizen and Pro Journalists as Robots”

  1. Will Riley Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your view that “a citizen journalist shouldn’t be expected to do the delicate task of doing a professional interview” or your view that “a professional journalist shouldn’t be expected to do the complicated task of getting citizens involved on the scene when he or she is out on a interview”. First of all it assumes that citizen journalists are categorically different than professionals. I think that we need to stop thinking about citizen journalists in general as unskilled amateurs with no entrepreneurial intent of professional development. Citizen journalists are budding professionals. We are more like aspiring musicians and filmmakers with an interest in fame or fortune than hobby roboticists person seeking to privately master the machine. We want public credit for our work.

    Second, while we want to represent our community, we don’t want to simply be the technological sensors of the public. We are not grips for sound mikes. We have co-equal voices with those we represent. We are people, not machines.

    The corporate media is the machine we want to escape.

  2. Will Riley Says:

    I wish I could edit my comments like you can edit the post to correct typos.

  3. Digidave Says:

    It is a strange phenomena. I was recently interviewed by another “human cyborg.”

    I wrote about the experience beforehand here:

    This guy would literally stream times of his life and would be open for other people to tell him what to do.

    Our conversation when he came to SF was streamed live – and he is also editing it to put up on his website. It was a new experience for me – and also tripped me out.

  4. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hi Will:

    I agree in principle with everything you wrote above. And perhaps the robot thing was a little much.

    However, I know from working with professional journalists they need all the help they can get. So getting diverse voices into their reporting process early in the game would be ground breaking.

    Also doing great journalism is hard, time consuming work. It is not that citizens could not learn to do journalism — it is just that most will only do what they want, when they want and in time increments that suit them.

    I love lots of aspects of doing journalism, but I am not going to spend three days doing a story for nothing. Pay me maybe, when I have time and if the pay is enough, maybe.

    On the other hand, I like walking up to the Marietta Town Square shooting some video, photos, writing short blog pieces. I would Twitter editors and say here I am. Hey Ron Paul folks are demonstrating against Rudy Giuliani, want some of it.

    I would be sharing nicely, having fun, and doing good work. What’s wrong with that?

    Just FYI: My Ron Paul, Guiliani video had more than 5,000 views, so it was worth something.

  5. Will Riley Says:

    To make things more interesting, I should probably disagree with you and start a debate, but I won’t dispute your reply because this is a serious discussion and you make some good points.

    It seems like your main point is that professional journalists – citizen or corporate – could make use of people who want to contribute content, but don’t want to take the time to put it all together. Of course these people could be anyone, including professional journalists.

    So instead of making the distinction in terms of monetary gain, we make it based on the production value of the piece.

    It would be more accurate to call these people, piece-meal journalists than citizen journalists because citizen journalists, like the corporate professional, could be the ones who put these pieces together in context.

    We don’t have as many professional citizen journalists as corporate journalists yet, but that is kind of our design objective. How do we help professionalize citizen journalists without turning them into corporate journalists?

    After thinking about the story that DigiDave posted, it seems as though there may be a way to be a very temporary puppet of the people, where the strings are the world wide web, without taking on the loss of interpretative agency that would accompany being a corporate controlled robot journalist.

    What is different is who is pulling the strings and pushing the buttons. Prima facie, a puppet journalist connotes a singular master, much like the vision of a robot journalist taking orders from the corporate bosses. But if the strings that pull the puppet are linked to thousands of masters across the Internet, each engaged in a democratic tug-of-war, then we have room for the puppet to take control to adjudicate conflicting commands.

    Instead of a puppet journalist, maybe we call it a representative journalist.

  6. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hi Will:

    Interesting, you write:

    We don’t have as many professional citizen journalists as corporate journalists yet, but that is kind of our design objective. How do we help professionalize citizen journalists without turning them into corporate journalists?

    Professional citizen journalists as opposed to professional corporate journalists. Frankly, I have not thought of that paradigm. Maybe I should.

    You talk about “our design objective.” Tell me more about that.

    Also what would make a citizen professional journalist better or different from a corporate pro?

    It all sounds very interesting.

  7. The Profession Of Citizen Journalism Says:

    [...] I write in the comments of Leonard Witt’s article,The Panacea: Citizen and Pro Journalists as Robots, “We don’t have as many professional citizen journalists as corporate journalists yet, but [...]