Citizens, Participants and Reporters

On Monday, the New York Times ran an article about the rise of participatory, or “citizen,” journalism. The piece led by describing the efforts of the Greensboro, N.C. News & Record to transform its Web site “into a virtual town square, where citizens have a say in the news and where every reader is a reporter.”

The nutgraf says that the News & Record’s online overhaul “is a potent symbol of a transformation taking place across the country, where top-down, voice-of-God journalism is being challenged by what is called participatory journalism, or civic or citizen journalism.”

Some argue that yesterday’s bombings in London gave way to an uprising of exactly that. 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?

The problem here is an unclear definition of what the New York Times called “participatory journalism, or civic or citizen journalism.” For starters, pick a name! As we see it, there are two separate things going on here. And, leapin’ lizards, at least two separate names at our disposal. First, there’s the move of established newspapers and news sites to solicit and publish material, such as photos or personal accounts, from their readers — that we’d like to call “participatory journalism.” Then there’s the creation of blogs and unedited news sites that allow users to write and post their own content. That one we’ll call “citizen journalism.”

Under these definitions, participatory journalism itself is nothing new — but the technology involved is more advanced. As today’s Los Angeles Times article on the use of cellphones in disasters explains, “The airing of cellphone video represents an evolution in television’s use of amateur footage. Fourteen years after Lake View Terrace resident George Holliday used his Sony Handicam to videotape Los Angeles police officers beating motorist Rodney G. King, networks routinely rely on footage from personal camcorders in covering stories.”

In short — news stations’ use of video clips from cell phones may be a new thing, but running video clips recorded by citizens has been around since 1991.

The key distinction is the difference between using amateur footage and eyewitness accounts as part of an edited news report, and publishing those things, unedited, on blogs and “citizen journalism” Web sites.

But that’s a distinction not frequently being made. On his blog First Draft, Tim Porter wrote yesterday that “The participatory nature of the news coverage of the London bombings — from photos on the BBC to Flickr, from blogger Norm Geras and to David Carr in London (posting in Samizdata) — erases the line between those affected by the news and those who cover the news.” He went on to conclude that “In a world of digital and reflexive communication, we are all reporters.”

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.)

Imagine the same issues related to comedy — something relatively free of the pretensions that bedevil journalism. “Participatory comedy” would be like what you see on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” Drew Carey asks audience members to shout out suggestions, then pointedly ignores the duds and picks out ideas that he thinks will make for a funny skit. From there, the professional comedians take over. Although Drew Carey may not be our first choice for an editor-in-chief, we nonetheless appreciate having someone sitting in that chair, weeding out the legitimate suggestions from the garbage.

Now imagine the nightmare that would be “Citizen Comedy,” where the stage is open to any witless member of the studio audience who wants some airtime. Not a pretty sight — and hardly the same as the “participant” version.

Providing fodder for comedy makes you a participant; it doesn’t make you a comedian. The same goes for journalism. Just because citizens have a new way of recording and transmitting that fodder hardly means that it’s time to call them journalists.

Samantha Henig

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.