Citizen Journalism vs. “Tragi-porn”

In defense—kind of—of Paul Carr’s attempted takedown of citizen journalism

There’s a fine line, apparently, between citizen journalism and “tragi-porn.” If you believe TechCruch’s Paul Carr, the two might as well be the same thing. Carr made waves this weekend with a harsh critique of citizen journalism and the Fort Hood shootings—and his claim that some of the errors that made their way into the initial coverage of the shootings can be traced to Tearah Moore: the soldier just returned from a tour in Iraq who, during Fort Hood’s physical and informational lockdown in the aftermath of the shootings, tweeted updates from inside the hospital where the wounded were being treated. Carr re-posts some of Moore’s posts:

[T]hey just brought a CART full of boxes w/transplant parts in them. Not good not good. #fthood

Ok we just saw a soldier on a stretcher w/2 armed guards walking by He didnt look like he was in great condition.

Maj Malik A Hassan. He shouldn’t have died. He should be in the worst suffering of his life. It’s too fair for him to just die. Bastard!

A FUCKING MAJOR? Are you kidding me? A MAJ! For those of ut hat don’t know, Army MAJ have pretty serious rank. Dick

Someone just started shooting in Commanche 4 which is on post housing. What are these people thinking?!?

The poor guy that got shot in the balls

In Moore’s defense—as the Toronto Globe & Mail’s Mathew Ingram points out—she probably got the erroneous information about Hasan’s death (“he shouldn’t have died”) the same way the rest of us did: from cable news reporting sourced by military officials. But the propriety of her tweets was also questionable—not merely in terms of their rhetoric (“It’s too fair for him to just die. Bastard!”), but also in terms of the information included in them (the TwitPic of “the poor guy that got shot in the balls”).

In this, Carr sees an appalling disregard for privacy and general decency; sharing, for him, is not an act of sympathy—of self-extension—but rather one of selfishness: “Her behaviour had nothing to do with getting the word out; it wasn’t about preventing harm to others, but rather a simple case of – as I said two weeks ago – ‘look at me looking at this.’” Thus Moore’s tweets, Carr declares, are indicative of the general communicative threat posed by the digital world—which allows for sharing as never before in human history—and the many new creatures it has spawned. And citizen journalism, therefore, in Carr’s if-it-looks-like-a-duck-and-quacks-like-a-duck-then-it’s-probably-a-dinosaur rendering, is at odds with Our Very Humanity.

Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.

It’s hard to know whether such a broad-brush argument—with its treatment of questionably appropriate tweets as Collective Commentary on the State of Human Communication—is fully earnest (“human decency” does, after all, make an appearance) or whether it is rooted, at least in part, in irony or link-baitery or orneriness (Carr’s Twitter bio: “Writer, hideously successful failure, kind of a dick”). Nor, in the it-is-what-it-is sense, does that really matter. Carr’s piece—and this is its chief failing as well as its chief salvation—is revealingly provocative. Not in the sense ostensibly intended—as a sweeping takedown of citizen journalism (“I’d probably feel slightly smug, if I didn’t feel so sick”)—but rather as an inquiry into “citizen journalism,” that oft-discussed yet nebulously defined institution.

And specifically: into the culture of citizen journalism. The question tugging at the corners of Carr’s taut little invective is whether Moore’s Twittering was appropriate in the first place—and whether, more broadly, social media are increasing our capacity to relate to each other…or, indeed, impeding it. The new capability we have to record every aspect of our lives—and others’—fosters, Carr suggests, a blanket impulse toward voyeurism. We’d rather record, he suggests, than participate. This is an impulse, Carr claims, that we’ve seen not only at Fort Hood, but also in Iran (he points to the “citizen journalist” who, on a cell-phone camera, created the video that recorded the life bleeding out of Neda Agha Soltan) and in countless other instances where citizen journalism has been praised for its ability to get on-the-ground reporting out to the world.

Of course, the tension between recording-or-getting-involved is nothing new; it’s been a mainstay of journalism ethics debates pretty much since journalism ethics have been debated. The difference now—the difference Carr hints at, even as he brushes it aside in his haste to make Sweeping Claims about an Entire Branch of Journalism—is that the people who must grapple with the question are no longer merely “journalists.” The decision-making required of those covering tragedies—how to record their events with both accuracy and empathy—is now being undertaken by people who have no necessary ties to professional standards of practice, people whose professional identities don’t exist in relation to specific principles of propriety. (Indeed, their identity is based precisely on its lack of professionalism.) The actions of citizen journalists in covering crises are moderated mostly by their own consciences.

And human consciences are, of course, not only inherently subjective—but also, and therefore, notoriously diverse.

Hence Carr’s complaint. While he frames his argument in terms of “humanity” as opposed to “ego,” what he’s hinting at is a broader anxiety common among those who express concerns about citizen journalism: the recognition that “human decency,” in the practice of that journalism, locates itself not within an external authority structure, but rather within the subjectivity of the practitioner. And subjective ethics are, strictly speaking, not ethics at all.

None of that is intended as a condemnation of citizen journalism, or to say that citizen journalists are lacking in ethics in the broad sense of the term. It is to clarify, though, what Carr implies: that citizen journalists—defined as they are by their externality from journalism as a professional entity—lack ethics in the very narrowest sense: they lack a specific code—group-mandated, group-moderated principles that set a kind of Platonic template—to regulate their behavior. There is no Society of Non-Professional Journalists setting standards for their behavior as they engage in their reporting.

But: there is a society of non-professional journalists, lower-case. Which is to say: there is a social network that exists beyond a citizen journalist’s own consciousness, implicitly moderating subjectivity. One always writes for an audience. And reputation is always a commodity. The question here is whether group-mediated reputational pressures will eventually take the place of group-mandated authority structures—and, if so, what will be gained and lost. The answer will not depend on “citizen journalism” as an institution, or on the platforms that facilitate it. It will depend on citizen journalists themselves—and on what the word “journalism,” finally, means to them.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.