From Bad to Worse: How Citizen Journalism missed the mark and lost its way

ultimate microcosm for why citizens make lousy *journalists*. Even though*Candid Camera* tricked people, it had nothing on the Canadian version for the sheer brazen and disturbing proof that people do not know how to think critically in their everyday lives (because we are *not* taught how to do so. This should be a class we take from Kindergarten and stop once we leave grad school, but I digress). The show’s pigeons would all stumble into a stupid con and blithely accept the situation at face value without ever asking questions, never realizing they were about to be played, sometimes repeatedly with a single gag. The extent of the lunacy of the cons was always breathtaking. My all-time favourite gag said it all: people would be stopped and asked *by strangers* to carry a large red flag down the street. They dutifully and perkily complied without suspicion, never realizing there were a large group of people suddenly walking behind them pretending to be Communist sympathizers complete with placards, with the dupe *unknowingly* leading the fake parade. Then the fake police officer arrives, confronting the real marks – what a shock when the dupes turned around, thinking they are in trouble with the law and at a loss to explain why they were leading a Communist parade. Just for laughs? Not quite. Think about that gag for a moment: 1. People can *easily* be talked into leading a controversial parade *without their knowledge*. (The next time a prosecutor or police officer smugly makes the claim that people cannot be ignorant of the fact they are breaking a law or are aiding and abetting a criminal, please refer them to *any* episode of *Just for Laughs: Gags*. Feel free to give these individuals The Look). 2. People can lead a parade for a long time and will only know of the truth when *someone else points it out to them*. 3. People are oblivious to a group of sneaky people walking behind them, meaning they are completely disconnected with their surroundings.

4. People do not realize when they are being played – with a fake parade and then with a fake police officer (and people think *Mission: Impossible* was unrealistic). The gag stayed with me for many reasons, but the biggest one is that it reminds me that everyday people make horrible journalists. The absolute worst there can be. The “no questions asked if it supports my opinion” policy is bad enough, but the whole repeatedly taking everything at face value sinks them every time. Yet we have Citizen Sophistry trying to pass itself off as Citizen Journalism. My foray into journalism is a little different than most in the profession, in that I went into journalism for the express purpose of finding and exposing its weaknesses (read the book Don’t Believe It!: How lies become news to see my results of my decade-plus Method Research project. If you are wondering why, I have recounted my reasons in the article All is Fair in War and Journalism). True investigative journalism is a science more than an art, even if it has always been presented and taught as a craft. It requires reflection, research, humility, bravery, honesty, and patience. It is not ranting on your Twitter feed, making some poor, socially inept dork out to be an evil monster. It is not declaring your unfounded and self-serving decrees to be absolute Truth. It is not about throwing a temper tantrum or making excuses why you are a loser. It is not about pushing an agenda. It is about finding enough facts to give context and important information and then presenting it without lies or opinion. It is not about being a polite, politically-correct propagandist. It is not about bullying people who see the world differently than you do or have different life requirements than you. And it is not about being a crusader who morally masturbates in public. Mainstream journalism was never about the science of information-gathering and that’s what ultimately sunk it. It wasn’t as if the press couldn’t be more like scientists, but they willfully chose not to be scientists. They made all sorts of

logical errors, such as appealing to authority, sink or swim, and most galling of all, falling for the confirmation bias time and again. The problem is that Citizen Journalism inherited all those vices, but only *more* so. If you are going to be a citizen journalist, then be a good one. If you are going to indulge in DIY propaganda, then label yourself as such. There was an interesting rant on the March 25, 2015 edition of the Jerry Agar Show on Newstalk 1010 in Toronto. There was a discussion about the shortcomings of Citizen Journalism – but then it ended with the suggestion that people really just ought to just hand their scoops over to the mainstream press – even though people who are silly enough to do so usually are not paid and these companies tend to be billion dollar empires that are making their owners very rich. I don’t recommend lining the wealthy’s pockets, but Citizen Journalism has so far been a huge disappointment: a bomb, to be honest, even if the real journalism is almost as bad. There is no discipline in the field, and more importantly, no science. Citizen Journalism is inferior to the gold standard of established journalism, and thus, as it stands, a failure. A few years ago, one college (not a private one, but one with a very good reputation) had asked me to devise a comprehensive series of courses in Citizen Journalism, and I happily did – from how to interview people to how to research, and even how to present information. I also developed a course on how to spot lies, hoaxes, and propaganda for the citizen journalist using logic, psychology, and even military strategy. I was thorough. So here was a reporter who had worked in the mainstream press, whose beat was about the mainstream press, who wrote books and academic articles about the shortcomings of the mainstream press, and even actively experimented with Citizen Journalism. My unique skill set at the time made me the ideal instructor. I meticulously designed the courses in such a way that I assumed there would be experimentation in the way news would be presented – but that the absolute skills needed to find, analyze, process, and present information would be there. I also made sure to make these courses absolutely unique with real world assignments

that would be given on the fly so that students would learn the ways of thinking – and reflecting on their feet. I was given carte blanche and had absolutely no restrictions to what I taught and how I would teach it. It was an unprecedented opportunity and gift for a veteran reporter – and was an unprecedented opportunity for anyone interested in journalism in *any* capacity. It was a dream come true, and I made certain these would be informative dream courses that broke *every* barrier imaginable. These were ground-breaking courses – and with my extensive researching skills, I absolutely knew these were revolutionary courses that were not offered *anywhere* – not as Citizen Journalism courses – or traditional journalism courses offered in the Ivy League at the graduate level. The college ran the numerous offerings for an *entire year* and were enthusiastically supportive of me without meddling or doing a single thing to stand in the way – and not a single person ever signed up for a single course. And that said it all. There is a certain arrogance to many who pretend to be amateur reporters (yes, pretend) – they think they know better than anyone else, and thus, they don’t need any training. It is all a game of make pretend in order to play a role – to build an image or relive some personal trauma. Once upon a time, mainstream journalists didn’t require any training or education to do their jobs, either, and it glaringly showed in their news reports. The problem is that when you are reporting on the world around you, you had better be skeptical and hyper vigilant. Because there is no shortage of cons and liars who can size you up, read you like an open book, and manipulate you in a heartbeat. They will exploit you, trick you, corner you, and then *break* you as you lose credibility and goodwill in the bargain. I know the mechanisms of this game from personal experience. I may have started in the business young and naïve, but I knew I was young and naïve. People will open their mouths, and out pop those lies. I always joked that journalism was the science of listening to a never-ending stream of lies and having to find the truth.

Poor people try to play you, pulling your heartstrings because they think you will see yourself as smarter because you aren’t as poor as they are, and think they can snow anyone with a pity scam. Rich people do nothing but try to play you, thinking you will feel inferior standing next to a rich liar and will feel compelled to brag to keep up, and then be too preoccupied to sit and analyze the bunk they are feeding you. People with multiple university degrees will try to play you because they think you will be impressed with the fact they squirreled themselves away at a university way past their expiration date. People with paper crowns will try to play you because they think a made up title shields them from reality. I interviewed people in boardrooms. I interviewed people from prison. I interviewed people who were in boardrooms and then ended up in prison, and vice versa. It wasn’t just Johnny Cash who has been everywhere, man, and yet I never mistook being everywhere for knowing everything. I never cut corners, even when I had a tight deadline – someone could deliberately drag their feet, hoping I panic myself blind. If it was a choice of publishing a shaky piece or just admit to an editor I wasn’t ready and face ire and a kill fee, I would choose the latter (never had to, but I was ready). I didn’t parrot a press release as if it were the unvarnished truth. I did interview experts, but not to blindly defer to them – I asked technical questions and actively looked if any of my base assumptions on certain issues and behaviours were folksy logic creeping in to my understanding of the subject I was covering because I knew if someone was going to manipulate me, they would assess my blind spots and attack there. If I clear my thinking to remove those self-imposed barriers, I would be more prepared for my interviews than if I assumed I was impervious to deceptions. It is a battlefield and there are people who know how to play the press because they use a combination of science and military strategy. They throw their bricks, hoping you throw them a jade so they can read you, figure out how you think, and then devise the way to hide the truth from you. They hire public relations firms, crisis management teams, and image consultants who hook up focus groups to various machines to measure their responses. They hire psychologists to understand how to manipulate their prey – and when you are a journalist – you are

the prime target for countless games where the point is to hide the truth and hope the reporter falls for the lies. People think they are good at detecting lies, but the idea is laughable. I did get that undergraduate degree in experimental psychology, and I know that the “signs” that people use to determine whether someone is lying or tell the truth is…garbage. Sheltered people with absolutely no life experience brag to me that they can “profile” people (then you are doing a *lousy* job if you are trying to snow me with that con). No, you don’t always know if someone is lying to you. No, you don’t know if there is a bigger game a foot. Sometimes it is just a lucky guess, nothing more. I worked as a journalist, and my mandate was to research with an open mind. I had to talk to a lot of people from different quarters and do a lot of research – and that even before I got started. Yes, I would find things – important things – but it wasn’t some sort of natural and innate guesswork – it was because I had the persistence to turn over every rock, which gave me the life experience I needed to become better at my job, but at no time did I just sit on my rear end and make royal decrees. No matter how much massive research I did, there was never a story that did not throw at least one major surprise my way. Why? I asked many questions – even questions that revealed my absolute naïveté in the matter. I never took anyone’s word as gospel. I always tried to draw a map of information to figure out hidden angles. I listened with an open mind and then went to search for evidence to both confirm – and refute what I heard. I knew I was swimming with sharks and I was prepared – I did not go in assuming no one could play me. My editors were impressed with the amount of research I did – and I did it because I wasn’t an arrogant little know-it-all. Reporting is all about the dirty science of digging for important information – it is not about being a snarky and arrogant rube who thinks he knows everything about anything, and anything about everything. But most importantly of all, it is *not* about the narrative. That is a game of sophistry.

It is not about telling a story with a point of view – it is about gathering relevant facts and then putting facts through several reliable and valid tests. You don’t tell an audience how to interpret information – you give them information with context. Traditional journalism never managed to find that balance – they read press releases as they took the publicist’s word as gospel. J-schools never bothered conducting experiments to find a more scientific way of reporting. No one in the field had a manual for determining the sorts of lies you are likely to face as a journalist until March 2005 (what Don’t Believe It! did, thank you very much). But getting that book published at all was an uphill battle. Publishers rejected it on the grounds that they claimed falsehoods rarely cropped up in the news reports (please take off your blindfold and try again) – never mind my proposal had an ever-growing list of real-life examples. Eventually and thankfully, the Disinformation Company published my book, and exactly one decade later, it still applies – not just to traditional journalism, but also to citizen journalism as well. Which saddens me: with hundreds of sources and years of active research, I was creating a journalistic bible, showing people how to be skeptical and hyper vigilant of their surroundings – and themselves. I showed where information-gatherers faltered, and how it can be prevented. Information-gathering in the Internet Age has gotten sloppier over time – any halfbaked and ill-informed opinion can be touted as information and analysis when it is anything but – but just because both Traditional and Citizen Journalism turned out to be duds, doesn’t mean journalism itself is doomed. In fact, I am very optimistic that a more scientific approach to the profession is possible – but it won’t be one that is hijacked by thieves and liars who use it as a cover to push their own selfinterests – but by those who are skeptical, hyper vigilant, humble – and truthful enough to finally get the profession out of the realm of What If to What Is – if they have the grit and determination to see a better way of letting the world know where there is danger – and how to face it bravely and truthfully to make a better world.