In the darkest days of the cash-strapped media business, some marketer—still on the payroll despite cuts to actual news-gathering and editing—came up with one of those business euphemisms that would be hilarious if it weren't so dangerous: "citizen journalist."
These people, or so it was told to those who actually had been trained and tested in the craft of journalism, would be a sort of civilian corps to help staff journalists with their work. They would write for the website, contribute photos, and contribute to a web bulletin board. The term was ridiculous, since it suggests that actual reporters are not citizens, when we are, or that the people in the auxiliary corps were actually journalists. They are not. Reporters whose salaries and benefits were getting slashed knew what the term really meant: people who will write for free.
That is understandably attractive to newspaper and network executives trying to trim labor costs (especially if it meant retaining their own bonuses). Neither reporters and editors nor the business executives at media outlets wanted to see papers go under. Desperate to keep readers (and bizarrely baffled that people would read the newspaper for free on the Internet instead of paying for it at the newsstand), someone came up with the idea of making readers into honorary reporters. The idea was to expand coverage and make readers feel connected to their newspapers. But it had its serious ethical dangers, and we saw the fallout over the weekend.
A Utah mayor started writing for his local paper, under a pseudonym, touting what he thought was positive about his home of West Valley City. Mayor Mike Winder said he had grown tired of all the coverage of crime in the local press, so he wrote for free for the Deseret News, KSL-TV's website, and a community weekly. Alarmingly unapologetic about his deception and ethical breach, Winder even admitted stealing the fake byline, Richard Burwash, from a real person, a tennis player whose name Winder found on the Internet.
It's horrifying that the news outlets, perhaps desperate for free work, didn't vet "Burwash" or even meet him in person. It's remarkable that no editor at any of those media organizations sensed something was wrong. And it's perhaps most insulting that news executives have such a low opinion of the work their paid reporters do that they would give it away for free on the Internet and farm out work to nonprofessional or unprofessional volunteers.
There's a reason for a hiring and vetting process for journalists. And there's a danger to using the work on anonymous (or fake) unpaid individuals who think they can be reporters simply because they own laptops. Photos can be doctored; quotes can be made up. Someone willing to write for free may have a political agenda—as Winder did—that the newspaper unwittingly subsidizes by not paying for the work.
So Winder complains that there's too much crime reporting in the news. Perhaps the answer is to actually reduce crime, instead of trying to suppress or supplant coverage of it. Maybe someone in West Valley City could bring it up with the mayor.