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.