"Citizen Journalism" — a label for recklessness that has to go.

(note: this story originally appeared on my personal site, Capitol Valley. I am republishing it here because I feel it merits as wide a discussion as possible, and this site attracts a different demographic than the other. Please read and comment.)

Was that headline provocative enough for you? Are you reading? Good! I’m going to let you in on a secret…

there is NO SUCH THING as “Citizen Journalism.”

Do I have to repeat myself? I’ll say it one more time.

There is NO SUCH THING as “Citizen Journalism.”

Good. Now I’ve really got your attention. Please keep reading.

The web allows anyone to publish anything, pretty much at any time, on any subject. With some SEO voodoo, it can even get to a good place in search results.

Cheap video and still digital cameras, broadband, and the advent of blogging have brought about this idea of “citizen journalism,” presumably to report the “real” stories that get ignored by “mainstream media.” Many bloggers have assumed this mantle of “citizen journalist,” and some sites like The Uptake have embraced the idea of publishing firsthand reporting by Joe Sixpack, as Sarah Palin would say. This has acquired the “citizen journalism” title.  Some sites take this further, like the “collaborative journalism” of NowPublic. CNN has had an “iReport” site that posts “citizen journalists'” clips, reports, and other snippets.

This isn’t neccesarily a bad thing. I have no formal training in journalism, but I consider myself a journalist. I think the more people out there who are reporting on events, the better.

But I strongly believe that the idea of “citizen journalism” needs to be abandoned, for good. Heck, I even hate the word “blogger,” especially when describing people like Josh Marshall, who won a Polk Award (for journalism) based on his Talking Points Memo work on the US Attorney scandal. He’s a journalist.

Journalism isn’t so much a profession as it is a craft with a set of values. You practice the craft and follow the values? You’re a journalist.

I’ve covered events, Congressional hearings, and other issues as an independent writer and on behalf of other organizations. I haven’t always gotten paid. But I’ve never called myself a “citizen journalist.”

On the other hand, I do think that when I do these things, I am practicing journalism. Not citizen journalism, just journalism.

If you report on, provide informed analysis or document events for the benefit of an audience in a true and accurate manner, that’s journalism. It’s ok, in my opinion, to have a slant or to call out untruths when you see them. Some people think that reporting requires you to get someone to tell you 2+2=4. I’m not so sure I always agree. Facts are facts, and obvious facts are…obvious.

But when you’re reporting a breaking story that isn’t a widely known fact, you should be checking on the veracity of the story. That means sending emails, making phone calls, or getting off your butt and talking to people, BEFORE you publish. Publishing untruths, like the idiot who told the world (erroneously) that Steve Jobs had a heart attack, is not only irresponsible, but it’s not journalism. It’s rumour-mongering.

Calling it “citizen journalism” and holding it to a lower standard is nothing but a cop-out. Journalism is not a licensed profession, like law or medicine. But it is similar in that it has some fundimental ethical principles that journalists follow:

  • Don’t publish things that aren’t true.
  • Check your sources. Check them twice. If you’re not sure, don’t publish. Being right is better than being first and wrong.
  • Ask questions. Be skeptical. Don’t be a mouthpiece.
  • Avoid conflicts, or disclose them fully and prominently. Kara Swisher has been a shining beacon on this front. Read her disclosure statements. They are easy to find, candid, and leave nothing to question, unlike some other tech bloggers. I respect Michael Arrington, but having a subordinate write about a company you have a stake in is not good enough to pass ethical muster.

This is what Kara has to say about her investments:

I have investments in several group funds, which are managed without my input primarily by an investment bank, and they might from time to time put my money into funds that buy shares of stock in the companies I write about. But I do not have any knowledge about when they buy and sell any shares. I also have several general stock-index mutual funds related to my former employment at Dow Jones, but none is specifically technology-focused, although any one might, from time to time, acquire shares in some technology companies I write about. In this case, as with all my investments, I also have no knowledge of when they buy and sell any shares.

Anyway, considering what happened to Apple’s stock Friday, I will continue to be highly skeptical of anyone who invests in companies that they or their subordinates write about. Arrington has a reputation for firing people for linking to other tech blogs. How do you think he’d handle a negative review of one of his investments?

“Citizen Journalism” does not exist. There is good journalism, and there is bad journalism. Whether you are paid or not is not at issue. The issue is how you go about doing it.

If your house catches fire, the people who put it out may be volunteers, or they may get paid. But they still go into burning buildings, and they all have the same commitment to doing it right.

Think about it.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

2 thoughts on “"Citizen Journalism" — a label for recklessness that has to go.

  1. Sarah Palin heartily embraces the idea that she represents Joe Six Pack, but now the Governor from The Nation’s Icebox has warmed to a new role – that of gunslinger for the McCain campaign. She’s taking on the classic role of vice presidential candidates – being the attack dog of the ticket, allowing the man at the top, McCain, to claim his hands are clean. The problem for McCain/Palin is that time is running out and Obama/Biden are leading in nearly all the polls. On top of that, the Democrats have more money to spend. If you want to help the Republican ticket, grab the web domain SarahSixPack.com and generate some excitement (and cash) for America’s newest GOP star and for her visibly discouraged running mate.

  2. Mr. Feinberg:You see the story in Techcrunch Oct 3. in which they rip a Chicago-based mobile search company–Earthcomber–for suing Mike Arrington's Ward Sam Altman's Loopt. The legal expert in the case is Mark Hendrickson, who was Arrington's 2007 pool boy intern, and now legal writer. Read the opening paragraph and tell me whether this is citizen journalism?Also: Arrington doesn't fully disclose that his Techcrunch has a joint venture w Loopt to develop a social network site that is the subject of Earthcomber's patent lawsuit. Now it seems that Earthcomber had added Techcrunch to the lawsuit as well.

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