With professionals of this quality, who needs 'citizen journalist' enemies?

 by Martin Belam, 19 January 2010

I wasn't at journalism.co.uk's news:rewired event last week, but the most passionate debate seemed to be the argument around the use of the phrase "citizen journalist". A few of the things I bookmarked for today's linklog seemed to come together in a way that illuminated that argument for me.

Blunt write a brilliant and funny "Bulls**t translator", and Patrick Smith took apart the economics of it. Both entertaining reads, both written in people's spare time for nothing.

Anton Vowl took on Catherine Bennet's column about free-speech martyrs and Internet mobs, saying:

"You can either ridicule the entirety of Twitter, and imagine that you're the big clever people who've got the keys to the world, by dint of being slightly better at writing than other people, but the truth is that isn't the case. It's not mob rule. The mob are your readers. The mob are real people, who think for themselves."

Again, it was done for nothing, and was excellent writing. And I think he hits the nail on the head.

It used to be enough to be a general authority on a range of topics, by virtue of being one of the few people with access to the publishing machine. That isn't the case any more. On any subject you are likely to write about, there will be members of your audience who know more than you, and who now have the means, either on their own, or through the tools newspapers give them in the form of comments, to respond and correct articles.

I'm not talking about the legion of 'I can't believe you get paid to write yet another Liverpool in crisis blog, when are you going to write about Leyton Orient?' comments on sports articles, I'm talking about the ability of healthcare professionals to respond to articles promoting quackery, about transport engineers being able to comment on articles about transport planning, about lawyers being able to correct misconceptions about the impact of the EU on legislation.

Adam Tinworth maintained that his slides from news:rewired weren't as useful without his commentary over the top of the them, but two of them speak volumes themselves - the future is in niches, and 'love your audience'. Journalists aren't writing for an amorphous mass of 'the readers' anymore, who are occasionally allowed to get something published in the 'letters to the editor' page. They are writing for a community of individuals who are all, to an extent, experts in something, and who all, to an extent, can self-publish on the very same digital platform as journalists.

And then I look at that Sunday Express article about the BBC use of Twitter.

Crazy Sunday Express story about the BBC and Twitter, so wrong it had to be deleted

The industry argues that what separates the 'journalist' from the blogger is ethics and standards and training and education. It took two - two! - professional journalists to write a piece of reporting so wrong-headed and factually incorrect that it had to be deleted. Malcolm Coles - again, for free, in his spare time - needed mere seconds to rip it to shreds. With professional friends like these, who needs the 'citizen journalist' enemy charging at the gate?

I don't know what the Venn diagram intersection of 'Sunday Express readers' and 'Twitter users' is, but presumably there are some. When they read an article so obviously nonsensical like that, they can only end up thinking "if this article, on a topic which I know something about, is so wrong, I can only assume that some, if not all, of the articles on topics which I don't know much about, are equally wrong".

If churning out bogus articles like the Express 'exposé' on the BBC use of Twitter is the price journalists pay to cling on to the designation 'professional', who wouldn't rather be an amateur?


I agree that journalism which produces stories worse than those written for free in their spare time by bloggers has got a bleak future - and a good thing too.

A different recent example was a really poor piece of political coverage in The Independent (taken apart here), which was far worse than what you can find for free from bloggers every day.

But I know my limits as a part-time amateur blogger, in particular the inability to mount extensive investigative projects to unearth wrong doing that people really want to hide.

It's that sort of good quality journalism that needs to survive; not the low quality stuff which is now regularly shown up by 'part-time amateurs' doing it better.

I see two problems, one from each side of this argument.

The presence of the citizen journalist makes the professional journalist just one voice in the crowd. The professional then must have an extraordinary platform in order to capture audience share.

In many cases, the platforms that were being taken for granted by the professionals died or are now in the process of dying, with the staff remaining on the dying ones (LA TIMES) hardly any better than the average citizen blogger.

On the other hand, the problem with the citizen journalist is that the vast number of them confuse having an opinion with having something to say.

Anyone with fingers seems to be able to put material on the web that has been said both better and worse 100 million or more times.

Also, hearsay becomes rumor becomes fact very quickly in a citizen community with few research facilities or talent and lots of time and blank pages on their hands.

"It's not mob rule. The mob are your readers. The mob are real people, who think for themselves."

I think Anton should spend a week moderating the average large comment operation, and then rewrite this. "Have Your Say" would be good.

An excellent article - I'd make a few points though...

There's a difference between "journalists" and "columnists". One performs a useful function in society, the other writes about the bowel movements of their children. Seriously - the last newspaper I read had opinion/lifestyle "journalists" writing what I'd consider 3rd rate blog articles.

Secondly, I was always taught that you should find an article in your favourite newspaper about which you are a subject expert. Then count the errors. Take that as being the error rate for every article. Without feedback from a subject matter expert / editor / readers there is no way that traditional newspaper reports can survive.

Finally, the phrase "Citizen Journalist" is hideously overused. No wonder "proper" journalists laugh at people who think that retweeting a photograph is somehow makes them the next Woodward and Bernstein.


I agree Terence, I very much subscribe to the idea that anyone can 'report' that a plane has ditched into a river by taking a picture on their mobile phone, but that analysing and explaining whether it was a regulatory lapse, bad business practice, or a freak accident that put it there is a different job entirely.

But more importantly, I think we actually look at this debate in the wrong way, partly because of the phraseology.

The phrase "citizen journalist" is a loaded one, and VERY US-centric. It's loaded with all that "citizen militia, defending your rights blah blah blah" stuff, and that helps prevent a meaningful debate actually happening.

I've long argued that we should treat "journalism" as what it is: a craft. Like every craft, it's something everyone can learn - and you learn best by doing. And like every craft, some people will be professionals and do it all the time for money, while some will be amateurs and do it for other reasons - love, fun, or because they feel like they should.

Once you phrase it like that - "amateur journalists" and "professional journalists" - a lot of the conflict that the "citizen journalism" debate engenders just goes away. You don't get debates about whether the existence of amateur astronomers endangers the livelihoods of professional ones. Nor does the existence of amateur photographers mean pros can't make a living.

And in the future, the same pattern will emerge with journalism. Some people will make a living at it, some people will do it because they enjoy it.

My gut feeling is that it'll end up more like astronomy, where amateur astronomers are a vital part of the process of astronomy as a whole, and produce vital data which the professionals use and build upon.

Of course, that idea - professional and amateur journalists working together to improve the quality of news and reporting - doesn't make quite such a good headline. Which is why I expect this tedious and counterproductive debate to continue for a while.

After all, what journalist can resist a good, conflict-based headline? :)

A good piece, but it’s worth remembering that citizen journalism has been a feature of good newspapers right from the start – via the Letters to the Editor section. Any editor worth his/her salt knows a lively letters page is crucial to a successful newspaper. The same is true of the ‘Comments’ section under any posted item. Editors should follow up interesting ideas, encourage sensible debate and delete those comments that break the law. It is a good thing that readers can respond quickly and easily; it’s when they don’t respond at all that editors need to worry.

All good stuff but is it fair to use that Express article - or that paper - to whack journalists?

How representative are they of 'professional' journalism? Not very I would say.

I'm reminded a little of Clarkson's comments about lorry drivers!

How representative are they of 'professional' journalism?

How else would you define 'professional journalism' apart from paid writers in a paid for print newspaper ;-)

I take your point though, it is an extreme example, and I understand that given the cost-cutting that has been going on, the pressure the staff at the Express are under is severe.

And don't get me wrong - I think the role of journalism and the media in informing people and holding power to account is a vital one in society. I wouldn't be working at one otherwise.

However, the wider issue for me is that every single article like that, in whatever paper, undermines the entire industry argument that professionalism is a vital and defining aspect of what it means to 'do' journalism.

One of the main advantages of this citizen journalism or amateur journalism is its "real time" capability.

For example: nowadays we can read about almost any important event in Twitter or Facebook well before than in any other conventional media.

This is something completely new, something some years ago wasn't even a dream.

Maybe Johan, but I'd still argue that real-time "amateur" or "citizen" reports of 'This just happened' are very different from people being able to explain why it happened.

There is nothing like real time!

In the obsession to be the first who broke the news, it only makes sense that the fastest and most compact way to relay a story would be the method most often used. I am sure we will come up with a faster way to communicate soon enough and Twitter will feel like a newspaper.

Is citizen-driven journalism ever going to go away, or will it just be further incorporated into legit media?

Aren’t the citizens [in the countries where the news is breaking] providing a first hand account in "Real Time," as stated above? Perhaps before a credentialed journalist or reporter can arrive?
Therefore if real-time reporting is what the media wants to provide then wouldn't that entail the media’s incorporation of more amateur assistance, submissions etc?

With the help of applications such as twitter and You-tube ordinary citizens are quickly turning formerly irrelevant social networking forums into extremely accessible & FREE sources that media is beginning to deem to be valuable, it seems.

Professionals check for accuracy and provide clear & concise accounts of these events. They still reign credible because we always assume that they are the fact checkers – no?

It seems (at least within TV media) that there after, the same storylines get rehashed from station to station, with minor variations until a major update occurs. The exception seems to be the citizen accounts they incorporate while reporting, which give girth to stale material; for example the ongoing disaster in Haiti.

The jest of the story is known but what keeps it compelling is the ongoing “real-time” interaction that we can see via web, tele, and even YouTube with ordinary citizens.
If you look at the 1/25/2010 issue of TIME magazine they are beginning to use “Tweet” quotes in their feature stories Haiti’s Agony
Go Figure-

Ordinary Citizen.

Well, newspapers now a days do print false or overly exaggerated stories. I personally think that this thing has now definite future as Now a days readers do have enough brains to decide what to believe in.

I don't think you can say enough about the upheaval going on across media right now. From the FT to 'Closer', from indymedia to YouTube, it's all up in the air. It's hard to see how some of the consumer magazines aren't hurting even worse than newspapers. I haven't seen an ITV ad for two years, and I'm only now starting to whitelist blogs that I like in my adblock.

I like to think that immediacy was never the ace that newspapers held, that was accuracy and depth. Few blogs display both. It is inevitable that papers that have traditionally focused on opinion and speculation over news would run into serious problems. Op-ed is exactly what is easiest to find online.

The Sunday Express article has been pulled, but is still available (for now) in google's cache. Alternatively, I stored a snapshot of it here.

I see a link between the attitude of a few journalists to bloggers and 'citizen journalists' and their attitude to a collaborative effort such as say, Wikipedia. While it is true that I can hardly read a page on the site without having to make an edit for clarity and grammar at the least, it astonishes me how hostile some professionals are to it. They just don't 'get' possibly the greatest thing to come out of the web. Or possibly they do, but are just afraid, as Wikipedia IP tools indicate that IP addresses registered to newspapers access wikipedia very regularly and very often.

As a U.S. Citizen, It does not always feel like we have a free press. Our media at times can pander to what they believe is popular with the people instead of just reporting the news. And speaking of the news, most of what I've seen around our media looks more like infotainment (if that is a word yet). Given that people tend to be like sheep, the press can and does heavily influence important political as well as social concerns.

Keep up to date on my new blog