Thursday, 8 March 2007

In defence of the "citizen journalist"

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has posted a plea – “please stop calling us ‘citizen journalists’”

Martin’s argument is of the Holy Roman Empire variety – neither citizens (in the overtly active sense of the word) nor journalists.
“How many bloggers / vloggers etc. would even call themselves journalists let alone citizen journalists?”he asks.

“What we're really talking about is a bunch of different phenomenon lumped together as 'citizen journalism'. There's the virtual stringers - people who happen to be somewhere that news is happening and record it (like at the 7/7 bombings). People who just reflect on or react to the news (like this blog). And people who write / photograph / video things which they don't consider 'news' but publish online and then gets picked up by others who consider it newsworthy. Maybe we should call them 'virtual stringers', 'demablogs', and plain old 'bloggers' until we develop a new vocabulary.”

Whether bloggers can ever call themselves journalists – in the sense of going out there and getting stories, standing them up, checking them etc … as opposed to happening to be there when stories happen or having ripe and robust views on something happening somewhere else – is a question Robert Niles takes on over at the Online Journalism Review.

“Are blogs a parasitic medium” bluntly. And Robert Niles goes on:
“I hear the frustration behind the comment. You bust your rear to get stories in the paper, then watch bloggers grab traffic talking about your work. All the while your bosses are laying off other reporters, citing circulation declines, as analysts talk about newspapers losing audience to the Web. It's not hard to understand why many newspaper journalists would come to view blogs as parasites, sucking the life from their newsrooms.
Still, the charge riles me every time I hear it.”

Robert Niles’ posting – written while “riled” – nonetheless seems aimed at whittling out a consensus … though some of the bloggers he consults use words like “baloney” while also pointing out that there are blogs that address topics the mainstream media ignore; that even derivative blogs “animate” the stories they reference; and anyway, there’s nothing new about journalists referencing each others’ work so why shouldn’t bloggers.

Oh and Lisa Stone, co-founder of makes the obvious observation that:
"An opinion editorialist doesn't have to break news herself to provide amazing, fresh perspective on world events -- whether she's published on the New York Times Op-Ed page or on her own blog.”

Robert Niles’ consensual tendencies can be read here; The silliest, and most destructive, debate in journalism in which he pleads:
“Let's quit arguing the merits of "mainstream" versus "citizen" journalism and instead work together on "better" journalism.”

And there’s something of that in buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis who posted this unremittingly optimistic account – most of which, for what it’s worth, I happen to agree with – of a term teaching journalists (first filed for Guardian Media on Monday.)

On the key question, the BBC has more or less dumped the term “citizen journalism”, preferring however reluctantly “user generated content.”

But the phrase “citizen journalism” seems to contain something really rather subtle that Martin Moore’s – and others’ – rejection of it misses ... though it’s certainly the case that “citizen journalism” means/meant something different depending on where you used it from.

For Big Journalism, it had a patronising tang that almost equated to “less than a … journalist”. For citizen journalists, though, it emphasised the truth of both citizenship and journalism (ok, I know we’re all subjects and not citizens in the UK … but rest-up for a moment); that you needed to be qualified for neither and that journalists were citizens, citizens journalists.

Oh… and that the rights and responsibilities of both were identical. Try the phrase “non-citizen journalist”. Doesn’t quite work, does it?

OK – vloggers/bloggers/networkers/shares are a pretty diverse group; they’re also – the few studies that there are suggest – a pretty parasitic lot. But Lisa Stone is right – so are journalists.

Whatever we call them/us, the people formerly known as citizen journalists have never just dumped a load of raw newsgathering into the news stream. They’ve also established a pretty high level of media critique that means any and every form of journalism is now forced to look over its shoulder at the strident cries of foul from those who formerly fumed (quietly) in the audience.

Which is where Robert Niles’ ‘destructive debate’ posting comes in. Whatever you call them, “citizen journalists” are an essential component of better journalism.

And hurrah for that. I still like the term “citizen journalist” – not that it describes what anyone does. But for the simple existential reason that it describes what they are.


Martin Moore said...

It seems ironic that Big Media should use 'citizen journalist' in a slightly derogatory way when the one thing I like about it is its aspirational quality (the do rather than the is).
It would be good to have more discussion - online or off - about the whole idea of what a 'journalist' is now (such conversations currently seem to be limited to academia and, by the sounds of it, within the BBC)

Ron Davison said...

"citizen journalist" is a bit like the war on terror. It seems like a term just vague enough to catch on. But aren't bloggers, in some sense, just the grandchildren of typers and children of word processors? Blogging or the internet is a technology - it doesn't really say anything about whether one is a journalist or ranter or diary exhibitionist, does it?