Today I did something responsible and forward-thinking and attended the Columbia Media Conference, which featured a handful of very impressive journalists. The editors, reporters, and publishers present touched on dozens of topics about the rapidly changing field of journalism, but there was one point that stuck out to me in particular.
Jeff Klein of Mother Jones mentioned that some of the best investigative journalism starts from the observations of what he called “citizen journalists.” He cited the recent story of the 47 percent video, which of course caught Mitt Romney on tape bashing almost half of the country for being too dependent on the government. The fascinating thing is that it wasn’t a professional reporter who caught this moment on film. It was likely an average person, a friend of the bartender perhaps, who heard the comments and posted a clip of the video on YouTube. Most likely, if Mother Jones hadn’t also posted the video, it would not have gone viral, but the important thing to note is that it was an amateur, not a “reporter,” who did the digging.
Bear with me when I tell you that this relates to my cousins in Texas being robbed about two years ago. Their computers and brand-new television were whisked away by some jerk when they weren’t at home. They called the police, who took fingerprints but didn’t give them much confidence that they would ever see their belongings again. But while browsing Craigslist the day after the robbery, one of my relatives found the exact model of their television, which was now up for sale. The man who had posted it was trying to get rid of the TV, fast, and wrote that he was leaving town. Immediately my family reported it to the police, and if the authorities had acted quickly, they might have been able to reclaim what was likely the stolen TV. Unfortunately not all stories end neatly, and they never got it back.
The commonality between these stories is that they are both moments of normal people doing jobs as effectively as trained experts through the help of technology. It’s my suspicion that as communication continues to improve, the idea of professionalism will lose its prestige. The best of technology and social media can’t completely replace true art or expertise (using Instagram doesn’t make you a photographer, for example, and as we saw in the sad case of Hurricane Sandy, without quick, federal aid, the damage of disasters would be exacerbated) but modern technology is making things that were previously inaccessible to the common man in reach. I can voice my opinions in comments on op-eds without having a PhD after my name. I can create a blog without knowing extensive html coding. And of course, I can make a tasty meal without having to be trained in culinary school. And it’s not just a matter of technology making things more convenient: It’s that we are less inclined to order a professional service for something we can do ourselves, if it’s cheap and as easy as clicking a few buttons.
The Internet isn’t the first instance of modern communication mobilizing people on the ground better than professionals sometimes can. When newspapers in England in the mid-seventeenth century began printing freely, without the censorship that limited the scope of their production, crime notices that advertised stolen goods turned citizens into their own private detectives, stepping in where formally the government had performed the investigative role. In one historian’s estimate, the old “hue and cry” method that had the local constables running after criminals solved only 6 percent of horse theft cases in Yorkshire. In the same years, the printed crime advertisements played a role in the resolution of 38 percent of the same sorts of cases. You can read the dozens of recorded trials at the Old Bailey, where witnesses used the crime advertisements to hunt down, and eventually punish, criminals.
This example, like the others, simply serves to illustrate how better communication and technology can empower regular people to observe, to create, and to not just leave it to the “experts.” I am not deluded into thinking that graduate degrees, licenses, and government titles will be meaningless anytime soon–and nor should they be–but it is certainly worth keeping an eye on the rise of the amateur in whatever field is our own, and to make sure we are using the many incredible tools at our disposal for good.