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 V.21 No.10 | March 8 - 14, 2012 

Thin Line

Readership, Readership, Let Me In

The Guardian garnered a lot of attention on leap day with an ad pitching the U.K. paper's news-gathering method. It's called open journalism, the gist of which is that readers help direct content.

In an age when people can comment, blog and share posts on social networks, readers are no longer “passive recipients of journalism,” says Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger.

In the ad, men with guns break down the doors of the Three Little Pigs’ homes after they've boiled the Big Bad Wolf alive. Citizens Tweet their opinions, provide evidence against the wolf’s guilt via YouTube, and point the way to a broader story.

So what's new about this? Is the Guardian putting its name on a change happening in newsrooms everywhere anyway? If we’re doing it right, we should probably be hearing from readers who are pitching stories, directing the flow of information. Plus, I've long seen journalists taking the temperature, posing questions and panning for sources on Facebook and Twitter. When there's a lengthy comment thread pointing out additional angles on an issue, we'd be fools to ignore it.

One major difference, though, is the Guardian posts its story budget—a list of what reporters are chasing—online every day. The paper asks readers for their two cents before articles are written.

In the echo chamber of the Internet, it gets even worse as stories are transmitted with the damning opinions of the re-poster up top.

Ian Katz, deputy editor, testifies that this approach has led to big breaks for the paper. Technology allows the newsroom to enlist readers as an army of reporters, he adds.

But the Three Little Pigs ad glorifies audience reaction and participation—probably because the Guardian wants people to buy into its concept. Andrew Cohen wrote in the Atlantic that it could be dangerous to encourage people to weigh in before a jury delivers a verdict on the porcine trio's case. Cohen sees the video as an illustration of the tension between freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial.

It's a legitimate concern. Ask Michael Lee. I interviewed him last year just hours after he won nearly $1 million from the city. He was jailed for 15 months for murders he didn't commit. "That whole saying, You're innocent until proven guilty? Bullshit," he said.

His case was so high-profile, the jail had to put him into protective custody. By the time someone else was pinned for the crime with DNA evidence, Lee's name and reputation were pretty well-tarnished. Try getting a job when a quick Google search turns up scores of news stories screaming accusations.

There are rules that are supposed to help journos avoid convicting people in the headlines. But they don’t always work. When you see someone in cuffs and an orange jumpsuit—or as you skim KOAT's " See Who Got Arrested" yellowed mug shots—guilt is assumed no matter how many “according to police” caveats there are.

In the echo chamber of the Internet, it gets even worse as stories are transmitted with the damning opinions of the re-poster up top. The rights of defendants, Cohen argues, have gone to pot in the age of social media and instant global communication.

Let's be cautious with our new tool/weapon.

And hey, I'm always glad to hear from you: marisa@alibi.com.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
 

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