Journalists are a rare breed. Itís one of those jobs people donít really understand but are curious about. We rub shoulders with politicians, ballplayers, cops, criminals, artists, musicians and various levels of celebrity. And then we write stories and opinions about them that reach thousands of people, every day.
Times have changed, though. People now have direct access to public figures through social media, and most smart phones provide the ability to publish stories, photos, videos and opinions to a mass audience, at the touch of a button.
That has produced an exciting wave of new voices, providing a dizzying array of stories and perspectives. Even locally, thereís incredible diversity Ė websites such as I Love the ĎBurg and Keep St. Petersburg Local for targeted local news, Peter Schorschís SaintPetersBlog for edgy political news and commentary, and Creative Pinellas for the latest on the arts.
Connecting with locally engaged people and groups through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter provides an even greater variety of news and information. Collectively they provide more reporting power than any mainstream news organization can muster. People also can share information in real time; and, in some cases, we even can hear instantaneously from the newsmakers themselves.
In 2009, when a US Airways plane crashed in the Hudson River, the first photos to hit the web werenít from the New York Times or local TV stations. They came from someone aboard a ferry rescuing stranded passengers, shot with an iPhone and published through Twitter.
And as the so-called Arab Spring revolutions transformed political regimes across the Middle East, they were organized and encouraged through Facebook and Twitter.
So, whatís so special about journalists anymore?
Iíve been giving that some thought. This month Iíll be leading a discussion about the ďdemocratizationĒ of journalism and the role of professional journalists in this new world. Iíd welcome your ideas, but here are some initial points to consider.
Our country might never have gained its freedom had it not been able to stand on the intellectual foundation of ideas established by the political pamphlets circulated in the colonies as the revolution was fomenting. This wasnít unbiased journalism Ė it was meant to sway people and inspire them to act.
Objective journalism is a relatively modern concept. It strikes me as an almost academic approach: Cast a wide net for the facts, consider a wide range of views, verify your research and try to present a truthful account of whatís happening. The goal is to put quality information in peopleís hands and provide them with enough perspective to make sense of it themselves.
In this regard, times also are changing. Weíre seeing a move back toward opinion-based journalism. Just turn on cable TV news any night of the week and youíll hear plenty of opinions. Not just there, either. The problem isnít that people have opinions. The problem comes when you try and pass off opinions as fact. If you canít distinguish facts from opinion, itís hard to make good decisions, and in a republican form of government, itís crucial that people be informed.
Thatís where the professional journalist comes in. Yes, we live in an age where you can get a wide range of news and opinions, often for free, any time of day; where the newsmakers can deliver information themselves faster than any news organization, and where mainstream news organizations are working with diminished resources because of these and other social and economic changes.
But the professional journalistís mission is to provide that unbiased vetting of facts; to offer perspective on the issues and, yes, to offer opinions. But when a journalist offers an opinion, itís labeled, so you know to regard it differently. This column, for example, offers opinion and a point of view, but you know that going in.
So here is where Iíll begin my consideration of the journalistís role in the changed media world: The journalist gives you someone to trust. Just make sure you read and listen carefully, and youíll figure out whoís worthy of your trust and who isnít.
Meet the editor
This week the conversation moves to the Brew D Licious Coffee Shop at the refurbished Hollander Hotel, at 421 Fourth Ave. N. in St. Petersburg. Iíll be there from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesday. Stop by and say hello.