Journalism Goes Grassroots...

...But the Lawn Is Dead.

By Jim Knipfel

It happens fairly often, especially in a town like New York. You're walking home from the store, say, and pass a battalion of fire trucks, lights flashing, massed outside a parking garage two blocks from your apartment. You're curious about what the heck's going on, but know full well that unless it's some kind of terrorist threat, it will never be reported on the news that night, so you'll never find out. Until recently, anyway.

A decade ago, as respected major metropolitan dailies were gasping their last, non-professional citizen journalists with Internet connections were hailed as the future of news reporting. Micronews sites with a neighborhood or citywide focus began cropping up online, places where people without the usual credentials or experience could post stories, pictures and cell phone footage of incidents that would never be covered by larger, more mainstream media outlets. In some cases the erstwhile reporters just happened to be on the scene at the right time and could offer eyewitness accounts of car accidents or crimes, though in most cases they focused on human interest stories about store closings or local eyesores.

With more of the mainstream outlets being bought up by major corporate interests and the very news we heard emerging from fewer and fewer sources, the idea continued to grow that neighborhood-based non-professionals would pick up the slack to offer honest, street-level, small-scale reporting aimed at forgotten audiences. Sites like Gawker, DNA Info, Gothamist, even Huffington Post, with content provided by dozens, sometimes hundreds of often unpaid stringers, arose and gained respect by scooping the big boys in far blunter and more incisive terms than the corporate media could ever tolerate.

It was of course only a matter of time before the grassroots DIY approach to the news was co-opted by the mainstream. Around 2006, Yahoo News began establishing local micronews branches in small, often ignored communities across the country, many of them places no longer served by local newspapers. CNN likewise started running small pieces online by indie amateurs with cameras and a story to tell. According to the press releases, it was a way of informing citizens about what was happening in their own backyards.

At the same time, local and national TV news programs began relying more on cell phone footage and Twitter feeds from regular joes, which turned out to be far cheaper than sending out their own reporters or camera crews. The digital counterparts of newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Daily News began running stories by non-professionals and hosting blogs written by outsiders.

Now Fox News has announced that in conjunction with Fresco News, a crowd-sourced news clearinghouse fed by hundreds of citizen journalists across the country, they would be making these homegrown reporters part of their local affiliate teams, even handing out assignments.

It's all very exciting and democratic, right? At last the true Vox Populi is being heard, as real people tell us what's really going on instead of another blow-dried corporate shill reading another official press release and passing it off as news."

In a recent interview, Jim Driscoll, news director at Fox News' Philadelphia affiliate, told the New York Post, "We'd been talking about citizen journalism for years, but we didn't act on it until our vision and Fresco's model met at the crossroads."

It's maybe more than a little apt Driscoll should use a metaphor for selling your soul to the devil, because there's just one problem with the new homegrown model of American journalism: Most citizen journalists are really awful. In many cases it's a bit like getting your news from a neighbor you ran into on the sidewalk. She doesn't exactly know the full story or the background, but she heard a couple interesting details that may or may not be true, and insists on passing it all along anyway. If you're curious enough, maybe you could go look up the real story elsewhere later. Or you could simply take her word for it and leave it at that. While quality tends to run a little higher at indie sites like DNA Info or Gothamist, in the hands of the major media conglomerates, what is being delivered as citizen-supplied news is becoming increasingly incoherent, a reality echoed in the level of reader comments posted beneath stories. Shoddy reporting at Fox News is one thing — nobody expects to find much by way of serious fact checking or coherence coming out of there anyway — but it is troubling when you find it becoming not only more commonplace, but the norm at once-respectable news sources.

Below is the complete text of a story that appeared on the main page of the New York Daily News' website on Monday, March 7:

Jeepers! It looks like a masked villain stole the gang's van. 

A California woman led police on a pursuit while driving a van painted to look like "The Mystery Machine" from the "Scooby Doo" cartoon series.

Sharon Kay Turman, 51, was at a traffic stop on Sunday around 3:50 p.m. when officers attempted to stop her for a probation violation, according a press release sent from the Redding Police Department.

Wait a second. Now, what happened, exactly? What was the probation violation? How long was the chase? How many cops were involved? Did it ever end, and was she arrested? And what about her, anyway? What's her story? Was she really wearing a mask? The piece was accompanied by several photos of the van in question, as well as stills from the original Scooby Doo cartoon series, which seems to be the only reason the story, what there was of it, existed in the first place.

Here's another example (also coincidentally about a police chase), posted on the ABC News website on February 29:

Runaway taco truck thieves were met by police gunfire in southern California after the suspects sideswiped a bus full of school children before smashing into a propane truck, authorities said.

The two-mile high-speed chase through San Bernardino began at around 9:30 a.m. Monday after the two suspects sideswiped an Amapola Rico catering truck, KABC-TV reported.

The suspects identified as Sean Fowler, 20, and Daiquon Horne, 22, tried steering around a school bus during the busy morning commute by hopping onto the sidewalk.

The truck scraped against the yellow transport, terrifying the bus driver who burst into tears after the chase was over, a witness told KTLA-TV. About 40 middle school children were evacuated from the bus and taken to school.

The smell of gas permeated the intersection after the truck plowed into a propane truck.

The bus was full of about 40 middle school children who still went to school despite the terrifying commute.

Wait another minute. Are these stories being written by first-year ESL students? Whose taco truck was it? And what was that business in the lede about police gunfire? Were the taco thieves caught? Did the tanker explode? We know all about that school bus, but how did it all start, and how did it end? It's like the responsible reporter simply saw some after-the-fact footage on TV and ran with it.

It would perhaps be some comfort to say these were extreme examples, but they're not. Today I seem to come away from most online and television news stories with no clear idea of what took place in the reported incident, as few if any of the standard W's (Who, What, Where, When, Why) were addressed.

Edward R. Murrow never got a journalism degree. A large percentage of America's most noted reporters never went to J School. That's not the issue. They did what they did so well simply because they could tell a clear story with a dash of style, and give readers or listeners a solid understanding of the situation at hand by providing a few fundamental facts along the way. Maybe the real goal behind the satanic deal Driscoll hinted at was to fog our minds with confusion, frustration and distraction. The masses are so much easier to manipulate when they have no idea what's going on.

Beyond ill-prepared and ill-informed citizen journalists, watch the ABC Evening News or CNN, read the Post or the Dallas Morning News, and what you mostly find is celebrity gossip, human interest stories about funny looking dogs, or hard-hitting reports about the latest viral video on YouTube. Which may help explain why so many people, after ostensibly hearing half a disjointed story from a dotty neighbor on the sidewalk, are now finding it necessary to turn to European news outlets like The Guardian if they want to know what's happening here.

Published March 25th, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.