Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Fifth Estate" may describe pro-am journalism

Just read a terrific (though not recent)* post by Poynter's Roy Peter Clark about the updating of the Fourth Estate role of journalists to a Fifth Estate encompassing traditional media and commentators from the public. He credits the term to an unnamed speaker at a Poynter conference. The phrase caught my eye because I always use the term "Fourth Estate" in the unit I do in my intro journalism class about the role journalism plays in supporting democracy.

In the column, Roy Peter makes some wonderful analogies to other situations where the work of "amateurs" augments that of the professionals such as: citizen crime patrols who help police, lay ministers who assist ordained clerics at church, and even by-standers with proper first aid training who provide assistance in medical emergencies. As he puts it, "You do not want me to perform brain surgery on your granny, but I assure you that if granny is choking in a restaurant, I'd know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her."

While amateurs in these and other fields are no replacement for professionals, he notes that "in the right context, with appropriate training, amateurs can contribute to the professions." Further, "Amateurism may have special potential in a field like journalism where you do not need a license to practice." As a final point, he mentions that legions of "expatriate" journalists are now among the citizenry, with the knowledge, inclination and ability to report and comment on community affairs. Put it all together, and we have a Fifth Estate.

I think Clark is on to something here. It seems all too often the discussion over the fate of journalism gets framed from one of two polemic standpoints, either:
  • "If newspapers die, accountability journalism dies with them, and nothing will replace it;" or
  • "Newspapers deserve to die because the crusty curmudgeons associated with them just don't 'get it,' and never will, and the new free-range media of bloggers, hyperlocals and the like will do just fine in their place."

I've never liked polemics in the first place, and find myself quickly losing patience with anyone who makes either of those arguments too vociferously. My own view is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The credibility and "trusted brands" of legacy media, not to mention the professionalism and training that the practitioners affiliated with them bring to the table, have to account for something. But having citizen journalists and bloggers extending the reach of overstretched professional journalists can't do anything but help the situation.

If I can add another analogy to Roy-Peter's list, think of the tremendous work done by volunteer firefighters, ambulance drivers and EMTs as first responders -- often working side-by-side at the accident scene with the paid pros, but also letting the paramedics and MDs follow through with treatment that extends beyond their capacity and training. Could that be a model for journalism?

There certainly seems to be a place in the mix for both professional journalists and their amateur counterparts. What we struggle with is articulating exactly how the pro-am relationship ought to be conducted. A defining concept such as the "fifth estate," and analogies such as the ones Clark uses, might help us down that road.

*Clark's piece was dated May 5, 2009. I was directed to it via a tweet by good friend @ljthornton, who was re-tweeting an item about blogger Todd Vogt's comment on Clark's work.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Having citizen journalists and bloggers extending the reach of overstretched professional journalists can't do anything but help the situation.

Fifth Estate Concept