Is there a better way to handle citizen journalism?

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Media organizations are doing some soul searching this week. Even Reddit issued an apology, of sorts, for the way in which the social news forum offered a platform for witch hunters in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.

CNN, still is reeling from the Supreme Court health care debacle last year, took another hit on the chin when its pundits and talking heads filled the screen with proclamations of captured suspects well before officials announced a lead.

Even the overly cautious Associated Press, the longest to hold out that a suspect or suspects were in custody, finely had to recant.

It wasn’t just CNN, the AP or online forums like Reddit that screwed up the Boston Marathon Bombings. Every media outlet got something wrong.

And it’s not because they’ve let their editorial standards slip or because they’ve lost too many quality people. No, my friends, resources are not the issue here.

It’s because the audience has fundamentally changed. And big media (and small) has failed to recognize it.

If I can get my news from someone at the scene who live Tweets and posts pictures or video, I may be no better informed than if I waited for big media to get there and dissect it for me, but I’ve experienced a little of the trauma, I’ve lived just a little of the narrative through the eyes or lenses of those who were there.

Most media outlets still gather information, distill it, then push it out from behind the hallowed glass halls of the A1 daily meeting.

The audience is tired of being told what happened, when they’ve know about it hours before CNN recapped it or the New York Times printed it. The audience just wants to understand it.

And in our efforts to explain it by telling people who, what, when and where, we forget that there is an army of  smartphone-bearing citizen experiencers out there already fleshing out the narrative.

But instead of treating them as the narrative, we isolate them and caution our remaining audience not to believe everything you see. But we were irrelevant long before we reached the point of marginalizing our own audience this way.

Getting back to what we do best

We are all addicted to story, because story is the common denominator between humans and the rest of the universe. If we need to understand something and preserve it for future generations, we put it in a narrative.

Media outlets attempting to scream into the dark void are starving for attention, and though the bells and whistles of television might get a momentary glance, there is no stickiness there these days.

Which is how Boston went so terribly wrong for so many media organizations.

In the aftermath, after the FBI shut down the information network, I saw media organizations try to connect into the narrative by providing a shell, a housing, so to speak, for the stories that were emerging.

By then it was far too late.

And even though this illustrates the best intentions, most publishers, general managers, managing editors and executive editors would do well to understand that people just don’t need you anymore, not when they can go to the source and hear the stories from the mouths, the keyboards and the cameras of the experienced. Or, more realistically, those stories find us through word of mouth and popular consensus as it trickles down to the phones in our pockets.

Journalism has thrived not on its ability to investigate and ferret out the wrongs in society but by great storytelling.

Media organizations no longer control the tools that allow the broadcast of stories. Social media took that away, smartphones with 10 megapixel cameras and high definition wrested it out of the hands of television producers. The venerable news sources of old are just one of 10 or 12 tabs open on your browser these days. One icon among dozens on your smartphone or tablet.

New Media is old media in sheep’s clothing?

Sure, new media makes the tools infinitely easier to use, but rapid monetization means they make the same mistake old media has made.

Who controls the story?

In the flashbang of public input from a large-scale breaking news story, it can be difficult to see who controls the story. We’re at a time when source-driven reporting is giving way to massive attempts to both control the flow of social information and to utilize it to help get at vital information.

The question for major media, and really all media, is this: What is our reporting role changing into, and how do we better harness and use the public flow of information to better serve humanity?

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