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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, June 29, 2008

questions about "citizen" journalism and secret journalists

on NPR this morning, someone had written a letter-to-the-editor type comment about a piece on citizen journalism, that is, journalistic-style reporting by non-journalists. I'm really not a fan of the term citizen journalism (or its relative citizen science, for that matter), but that's the subject for another post. here, I want to focus on a comment about the NPR story. one listener said that citizen journalism is potentially problematic when such citizens do not identify themselves as serving a journalist-like function, as people on whom are being reported should be aware that such reporting is taking place. I wonder if that assumption, that the average person off the street is not going to report on your interactions that s/he observes, is really well founded.

I'm not encouraging or endorsing the practice of secret journalism or being intentionally misleading about one's intent to broadly disseminate information. however, I don't think it's reasonable to assume that any act taken in public will not be posted online. I'm thinking in part here of George Allen's macaca debacle. he clearly did not consider, even though he was speaking publicly in front of a largish audience, that his speech and actions would be as public as they became. but I'm also thinking in part about greater trends of watchfulness and sousveillance. it's not necessarily the case that every word you say will show up on the front page of tomorrow's New York Times or Slashdot post, but that possibility definitely exists for your every word.

how do we as a society and as a culture cope with such possibilities? one obvious approach is to assume that pretty much everything you say or do might be available for public consumption. however, I don't think that's really viable, for a number of reasons. normal social interaction depends on a certain degree of deception; plausible deniability is a necessary social gloss in many occasions.

ultimately, I feel like the currently predominant notions of public and private are not really sufficient for talking about or thinking about the ways in which we present and construct our selves, and the ways in which our selves get presented and constructed by others. I'm not quite sure what alternative conceptions might be more useful, but I suspect they would likely focus on identity, how we construct our identity, how others construct our identity for us, and the ways in which we maintain different identities in different contexts.

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