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MY TURN: Be aware of citizen journalists on the prowl

by MARC STEWART/Guest Opinion
| January 5, 2024 1:00 AM

I am a professional writer with nearly three decades of experience, including working as a journalist for over 15 years. My parents were both longtime journalists. It’s not an exaggeration to say I have ink coursing through my veins. 

I am writing this column because I am alarmed that our community has a new, but not really new, critter to contend with called the "citizen journalist." These are individuals who report, document or share news and information through various media channels. 

Typically, citizen journalists lack formal journalism training or experience. They simply woke up one day and declared, “I am a journalist. Hear me roar!” And roar they do. They shape opinions and influence local politics with posts on social media and their own websites. 

Many people eat it up. Mostly because they want to find “news” that aligns with their worldview and their politics. It’s human nature to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and values. We also love a good story — even if it’s partially untrue. 

None of this is groundbreaking or unique to North Idaho. It’s yellow journalism, a style of reporting that emphasizes sensationalism, exaggerations, distortions and misleading information to attract readers. 

Yellow journalism started in the late 19th century and is commonly associated with a New York City newspaper rivalry. Only today, instead of newspaper rivalries, we have online news outlets, such as the Idaho Tribune, North Idaho News, the Kootenai County Spectator, the Bushnell Report and the Kootenai Journal. All of them are vying for your attention. 

The People’s Pen is a printed newspaper that arrives in Kootenai County mailboxes a few times a year — typically right before an election. It’s a political publication designed to influence your opinions, and ultimately who you vote for, with carefully crafted messages.  

For the most part, it’s unknown who funds these citizen journalist platforms. While some of these outlets are more successful than others, they all share similar traits. They’re not constrained by ethics and editing. The Idaho Tribune’s reporters use fake names like Johnston Meadows or Susan Collins. The Tribune’s political viewpoint is alt-right and they weave opinions into stories as if they are facts. 

I have seen articles written by a former federal fugitive from justice. However, many of the People’s Pen pieces don’t have a byline, which traditional newspapers typically do. 

Citizen journalists are known to lie or omit key pieces of information. It’s insidious, because we live in a society that reacts to information instantaneously. Only through the lens of history do we realize what was true.

Remember the claims that the Community Library Network was loaded with pornographic materials polluting our kids' minds? No proof was ever given and two incumbents were bounced from office. 

Remember the furor over a drag queen exposing his genitals to children in the park? Turns out that wasn’t remotely true and the drag queen is suing a citizen journalist for defamation and the case is winding its way through the court system. 

There is almost zero accountability with citizen journalists. Unlike professional journalists, they never issue a correction when an obvious error is made. Unless an individual or business wants to pony up the money to sue, citizen journalists can get away with anything. 

It can be argued that citizen journalists don’t have the credibility that traditional news outlets do. But if you believe professional journalists are trusted and believed in, you’re in the minority. 

President Trump brilliantly tapped into the public’s mistrust of the media. He declared questions he didn’t want to answer to be fake news. It’s a dangerous road to travel. If everything is fake or a lie, what is truth and how are we supposed to differentiate it? 

I encourage everyone to consume their news from an array of sources and question whatever you read. Remember the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” President Ronald Reagan knew it and he was considered the great communicator.

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Marc Stewart is a Coeur d’Alene resident and former journalist.