Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Columns

Citizen journalism: It’s worth promoting


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The respected director of the Tallahassee-Leon Shelter was recently forced out after 25 years on the job. His ouster came weeks after some of the worst press any social service agency could generate.

You can call it a victory for citizen journalism.

It began with a bombshell Feb. 13 blog post on TallahasseeGrapevine.com. Renee Miller of City Walk Urban Mission wrote that she wanted to check complaints about the verbal abuse being meted out by employees at the downtown homeless shelter.

From the homeless women, Miller heard of the sexual come-ons, the bed bugs, and the fear for their children Ė with sexual offenders sleeping under the same roof. Miller said she wanted a firsthand look. She went undercover.

The married mother of six pretended to be homeless. She didnít even last one night. Miller wrote that she was propositioned by one of the shelterís male employees. In a panic, she called Tallahassee Police Department to come get her. They did. Her stay at the shelter lasted just three hours, but its impact will be felt for years to come.

Three days later, her blog appeared on TallahasseeGrapevine.com, a site operated by her husband. I encountered the blog on Facebook, where it was shared by a friend and former journalist. Before long, Millerís story appeared on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat. Other mainstream media outlets followed.

Thanks to Miller, the issue of homelessness in the state capital is getting more than lip service. Those who care for the downtrodden are taking a serious look at how we treat our most vulnerable.

The role of The Shelter is being examined: Is it enough just to provide a bed and meal day after day, year after year for the regionís more than 1,000 homeless men, women and children?

Thanks to the unwanted publicity, The Shelter hired a professional service to debug the facility. A Tallahassee Police Department investigation concluded without criminal charges, but two shelter employees were fired.

Director Mel Eby, who had been placed on leave after the scandal broke, was forced into retirement. In an interview with the Democrat, Eby portrays himself as the victim. He sees some massive conspiracy to smear him after he was named the Tallahassee Democrat Person of the Year for 2012.

Thatís misguided.

Whatís more accurate is that Millerís actions exemplify the true spirit of citizen journalism Ė citizenship and journalism.

I tell my students that citizen journalism is journalism practiced by people who are not working for the corporate media. I need to revise that definition. Citizen journalism combines the best aspects of citizenship and journalism Ė civic pride, caring for the oppressed and downtrodden and challenging authority, speaking truth to power and ignoring the consequences.

But not everyone sees Miller as a hero. Some question her ethics and motives. She isnít a journalist. It was OK to pretend to be homeless. She did what would have been difficult, if not unethical, for journalists to do.

As an urban missionary who works with the regionís homeless population, Miller is part of Homelessness Inc. She hopes to open a shelter for women and children. Her City Walk Urban Mission helps homeless families transition to permanent housing. Itís fair to question Millerís motives but not the heroism of her actions.

Citizenship and journalism: Thatís a partnership worth promoting.


Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He can be reached at askerritt@floridavoices.com. Follow him on twitter at andrewjskerritt.

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