At the London Free Press, Ian Gillespie warns of the hazards of the internet:

Watching that 90-second video [here], it’s hard — no, make that impossible — to see or know exactly what’s going on.

But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands (by late yesterday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than 30,000 times on YouTube) of uninformed folks from making instant, inflammatory and out-of-context accusations, declarations and conclusions.

And that, my friends, is one of the dangers in our new age of viral videos, immediate journalism and lightning-fast analysis.

The problem isn’t the internet. After all, look at how well the mainstream news managed to inflate the Balloon Boy fiasco, far beyond our need to be (mis)informed.

The problem isn’t the internet, it’s how we use it — which means we can learn to use it better. We should focus on that.

Gillespie lists a number of questions that should be asked as we watch the video:

Where has he been in the minutes or hours before the video was shot? What has he done? What happens after the video ends?

[Exactly what I was thinking. As I watched the video yesterday morning I wondered what all those other bystanders knew and where that information was.]

That’s why professional news organizations need to educate more interested members of the general public. People need to be equipped with at least some of the skills and impulses journalists have — to think, to look around, to ask questions and bring more of the story’s background into view.

[Instead, we’ve been trained to consume the most sensational aspects of stories. Consider the first sentence of the UWO story: “A firestorm of controversy is raging…”]

I was glad to see that Ruby gathered more information before (and after) posting about the incident at LondonFuse.

Jeff Jarvis and others have been arguing for a while that professional news organizations need to train citizen journalists and facilitate them (us) in order to improve the quality of information coming out as stories break online.

Sharing information and devising conclusions is a spontaneous, natural human behaviour; you’re not going to stop it so we might as well try to channel it more effectively.

James Shelley discussed the issue here, calling it “a microcosm of what we witnessed at the Iranian protests this year: the lines between “witnesses” and “media” are now almost indecipherable.”

So I’m thinking… since we’re all in favour of ensuring the highest quality of information and dialogue, let’s talk & do more about working together — professionals and amateurs — to share best practices, and elevate the level of public knowledge and discourse in the city.

As a start, I love a lot of the “behind the scenes” content The Free Press is generating on their blogs. Dan Brown blogged about that yesterday. But a lot more can be done.

I’m just throwing ideas around… I’d be more than willing to participate in a pilot project of some sort — webinars, a series of meetups & discussions, a blogger-reporter exchange program… I don’t know.

[Update: Check out NPR’s PublicMediaCamp as an example.]

Regardless, it’s time we see more positive initiative from the professionals (or at least better arguments and explanations to the contrary — not just flimsy analogies and flip remarks).

Leave the complaining to amateurs.

[And yet another update: Jay Rosen pointed back to an excellent older post he wrote about using “the press” rather than “media”; I’m quite inclined to agree. I’ll adjust my vocabulary accordingly from now on (when appropriate, which won’t be often: most of the time it is media I’m writing about, not the press). If I were to rewrite this post tomorrow, the title (at least) would reflect that.]