CJR Online lends a skeptical eye to the concept of Citizen Journalism in its Spin Buster article yesterday.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the U.K. Guardian all ran articles today about the critical role that ordinary citizens played in getting out photos and information from the attack sites well before news crews could arrive on the scene. The Internet and news stations alike were awash with personal accounts from witnesses, and photos and video clips taken from shaky camera phones.
Jonathan Klein, president of CNN, told the Los Angeles Times that “It’s a harbinger of what’s to come in terms of citizen journalism,” adding that “These days, you just have to be in the wrong place at the right time, and you too can cover the news.”
But is that what’s really going on here? Yes, people with camera phones provided viewers with disturbing images of the evacuation of the Tube — images that just a few years ago would have been left to the imagination. But does that magically turn them into journalists? Or are they simply eyewitnesses with impressive phones?
CJR makes some salient points but they’re undercut by a stench of elitism that I feel permeates the article…
Not to be a dictionary-hugger, but it depends on how you’re defining “reporters.” If a reporter is anyone who reports on an event either verbally or in writing, then, yes, we are all reporters. And we’ve all qualified as reporters since long before the rise of digital communication — like, say, since the beginning of spoken language. Or perhaps before then. When a dog barks at the door, he is announcing he hears approaching footsteps. By Porter’s definition, that makes Fido a reporter. (Nontheless, Fido is not getting a cell phone with a built-in camera; on that issue, we’re putting our foot down.)
But if being a reporter has some journalistic standards attached to it, then only those upholding such standards should qualify for the title. (And if those standards don’t exist, then, well, we better pack up and find new work.)
I think the term “Citizen Journalist” sometimes gets a bad rap because the word “Journalist” is in the term and critics and nay sayers tend to focus on that and ignore the adjective “Citizen” that comes before it. Semantically the term “Citizen Journalist” is a perfect categorical description of the concept. Just as there are “citizen militias” which nobody would confuse with government militias or armed forces, nobody is going to confuse “Citizen Journalists” with professional reporters. Because the adjective “Citizen” in front of the word “Journalist” implies something other than professional reporters, the public will understand that what they’re getting is not from a professional organization. I don’t think it needs to be spelled out that standards aren’t part of the equation as CJR seems to be arguing. The public knows the difference between “Citizen Journalists” and “Professional Journalists”.
That said, the idea that “Citizen Journalism” can replace professional reporting is a bad one. From the New York Times article by Katherine Q. Seelye that CJR noted in it’s report…
For years those words evoked the romanticism of the newspaper business, back when swashbuckling reporters landed scoops with derring-do. Today they mean something else entirely, at least here where the people at The News & Record, the local daily, are toiling to reinvent their newspaper.
In this world, “Get me rewrite” will in effect be a menu option, a way for unhappy readers to go online and offer their own versions of articles they do not like. Their hope is to convert the paper, through its Web site, www.news-record.com, into a virtual town square, where citizens have a say in the news and where every reader is a reporter.
There already is a mechanism in place for people to offer their own versions of articles they do not like. It’s called Letters to the Editor. There is no need to remake the paper so that it’s beholden to the whims of the masses who are frequently not as informed on the issues as the reporters covering the stories.