Don't bust bogus "hype"

Why Salon's article on Reddit's Aurora reporting ticked me off

Published July 25, 2012 6:45PM (EDT)

James Holmes' photo from his Adult Friend Finder profile.
James Holmes' photo from his Adult Friend Finder profile.

My journalism day began with a groan when I read "Hold the Reddit Hype" by Michael Barthel. ("The site broke important Aurora news, but 'crowdsourced' journalism is as sensational and market-driven as the MSM.")

I have been an occasional Salon author, as well as a reader, for a very long time. A loyalist, but today ticked off. So I wrote to Salon editor Kerry Lauerman. "This piece is so far below Salon's standards," I said ...

You cannot come out with an article suggesting that Salon is going to clear away the hype surrounding Reddit and citizen journalism without showing us what the hype is, where we can find it, and at least some indication that it has volume and velocity. The single example trend piece isn't Salon journalism, is it? But in this case it's even worse, because the Matt Ingram article Salon uses here to suggest that there is a wave of hype actually makes a very modest claim. It says that citizens journalists "may not replace the traditional journalism we’re used to, but they are certainly going to help." That's hype? That's excess enthusiasm? Really? Since when? There is no other evidence presented by the author that we're about to swallow these overblown claims about Reddit and citizen journalism. Lines like "Why do we insist on the superiority of citizen journalism?" are credibility crushing if you don't have anyone in this piece insisting on the superiority of citizen journalism!

I also sent Kerry a link to my Facebook post. It expressed a similar irritation. (My Facebook page is public.)

This drives me up the freakin' wall. Salon decides that Reddit and "citizen journalism" are getting a swelled head about themselves and rides to the rescue! Salon will de-mystify and cut through the hype after the Aurora shootings. And then the one article Salon decides to push against is a very calm assessment: the opposite of hype! It simply says that citizens journalists "may not replace the traditional journalism we’re used to, but they are certainly going to help." Wow. And that's supposed to be an example of getting carried away with the promise of citizen journalism? That's why we need Salon to stride in, sort things out and be the adult here?

In a rather long piece no other evidence is presented that we are about to be swept away in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm. And so this article, presenting itself as a hype-buster, is actually an example of hype. It tries to get us to worry about a wave of overblown claims for Reddit and citizen journalism and then fails to deliver the wave. It says, for example: "Why, then, do we insist on the superiority of citizen journalism?" even though no one in the article is insisting. That is cheap and pathetic, Salon.

I once tried to give a name to the kind of article that I think "Hold the Reddit Hype" is: the linkless hype buster, a mini-genre that has provoked me to foul temper before.

You have presented yourself as a courageous contrarian to "it's a miracle!" claims, but these claims are not presented in your column. We're just supposed to know about them.

Where I agree with Salon's editors and Michael Barthel: claiming too much for crowd- or amateur-driven journalism is a good way of defeating it. Acknowledging its limitations is vital, one of the first things we have to do. Don't get carried away! But here's the problem. The linkless hype buster is a form of hype. It is getting carried away.

Crowdsourcing, as Wired's Jeff Howe said, is taking a job once done in house and outsourcing it to ... the crowd. Open call-style. Only under limited conditions is this advisable! Everyone should learn what these limits are. "The Wisdom of Crowds," James Surowiecki's phrase, was born as a limited concept. Crowds are wise only under certain conditions.

I have a personal stake in the subject, including the claims we make about participatory journalism. Crowdsourcing and citizen journalism, pro-am and open journalism are things I care about and write about. I'm not satisfied that we're making the progress we should be making with these forms. Last year, I gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum about it. “We’re not as far along as we should be. I’d give us a C-minus.” The other grades I listed back up some of Michael Barthel's observations.

Pro-am accountability and monitoring systems: C
Comment threads supply knowledge that improves reporting: C-
Pro-am election coverage: C-

Crowd-funded reporting projects: D
“My readers know more than I do” beat reporting: D

Domain knowledge experts who blog work together with beat reporters: F
Integrating amateur systems like iReport with pro newsrooms: F
Pro-am editorial agenda-setting: F
Pro-am fact checking networks: F
Pro-am investigative journalism: F
Globally distributed pro-am reporting on global problems: F

So yeah, let's not get carried away. I don't think the world is in that much danger from hopes misplaced on Reddit or crowdsourced journalism. Salon doesn't need the hype-busting jive at all for these pieces. Just tell us what the many can do better than the few, try to locate it when you can, and also what the few obviously do better than the many. Try to locate that when you can. The limits of crowd power, the story of when and where and exactly why we need pros with good judgment: I want Salon to bring me all of that.

And skepticism toward the wonderfulness of everything Web.

By Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen is chairman of the Journalism Department at New York University and author of "What Are Journalists For?" (1999, Yale University Press). This originally appeared on his weblog, PressThink.


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