The Perils Of Citizen Journalism

I've been kicking around the idea for this post for some time, it's all to do with (and I hope you'll forgive the cringe-worthy jargon) 'Citizen journalism'. The purpose of the post is to throw out the general ideas that I've been thinking about this, and more specifically, how I and this blog fits into this role. I'm not the only person thinking about this.
It was the raid on a house in Forest Gate that got me thinking about my role in bringing people news. For those that don't know, Forest Gate is a place within my 'patch'. Acting on anti-terrorist intelligence that would later turn out to be faulty, the police raided a residential house there. One man would be shot and wounded by the police. Some people considered this a blow against the Islamic faith.

The rights and wrongs of this raid have been discussed in other more learned places than here. My own point of view is simply this – how embarrassed would the police have been if the intelligence had turned out to be correct and there had indeed been a cyanide bomb attack that they could have stopped.

During the search of the house following the raid the police had an ambulance on standby a little way down the road, apparently it was a nice little bit of quiet overtime. When the ambulance service works this closely with the police there is a fair swap of gossip.

For about a week before the news was made public I knew that the police had found £32,000 in cash in the house. At least that is what one of the crews on scene had told me. The money was apparently kept in black bin bags.

So what was I supposed to do with this information? If I were the true 'citizen journalist' then I should surely publish this information. With the amount of national media that the story was getting if I did disclose this 'insider' information then I would be assured of getting a large leap in page-hits. If I published I would probably be the centre of attention for a while. All good publicity if one is trying to sell a book in the near future.

On the other hand – If I did publish it could wreck any potential legal case against the householders. It may well get an ambulance crew and a loose-lipped policeman into trouble. It was also an unconfirmed rumour and if it turned out to be false then my reputation would possibly take a hit and I could leave myself open for a libel case.

So what should I do? 'Publish and be damned', poorly protected by my 'amateur' status? Or should I keep the information to myself – supposedly betraying the whole reasoning behind citizen journalism?

I decided that it would be best all round if I kept the information to myself – the risks to myself, the police, the ambulance crew and to the householders themselves (who could have a completely reasonable explanation for the money) could not be balanced out by the benefits of a 'scoop', no matter how much this author craves attention.

So here is the thought that is rattling around in my head – is 'citizen journalism' just a way for disposable people to release damaging information? The BBC wouldn't want to publish something that was incorrect. Yet if Joe Smith's blog publishes it and he gets sued then it isn't the big media company that is damaged.

Quite possibly it is this specific lack of knowing the rights and wrongs of publishing that makes 'citizen journalism' both exciting and dangerous – and would anyone care if another blogger gets taken down?

Bloggers are already being sued, and I think that there will be more legal action in the future.

I have no idea about the ethics of journalism, which is perhaps why this blog doesn't touch too often on the news or on digging out a story. I'm not a journalist, I'm not trained to be a journalist and to be fair I don't think I'm smart enough to be a journalist. But if it were my desire to become a 'citizen journalist' there would be nothing stopping me from going out looking for stories and those stories could get me into a lot of legal trouble.

So – to all those bloggers who consider themselves 'citizen journalists', be careful it's not as simple as stringing sentences together on a website.

In saying this the much nicer phrase 'Participatory media' is much more fitting. Thought up by people much smarter than I, it describes how more citizens may assist the regular news outlets by providing pieces that can be checked and edited by professionals.

But does this damage the 'truth' of citizen media?

I don't know – which is why I'm putting these half-formed thoughts out here – please feel free to tell me I'm being an idiot.

13 thoughts on “The Perils Of Citizen Journalism”

  1. You made the right decision. One thing that most news journalists will have is media law training, or at least an editor or lawyer above them who can look at their work. I'm a journalist, and I think I disagree with the above post. I'd say you were a diarist, although your diary is public.You made the right decision, though – in Brit law it's up to the defendent to prove that what they wrote was right, rather than the claimant to prove its falseness, which is very hard. Esp as you say, it was hearsay. Very interesting post, though.

  2. TR,Without going into to many details, myself and hundreds of my colleagues could blow the lid on the whole 'foreign deportees' nonsense currently in the media, as well as the complete story of the media – led frenzy that has guided Home Office / IND policy for the past 15 years. We choose not to as we are, in the main, professionals who care about our jobs, our colleagues and our pay packets. We also share a common acknowledgment that our actions are in many senses kept from the public eye for very good reasons.

    If you see something happen on the street that you feel the need to comment on, that is fair game and can be considered citizen media. If it is part of your job, it should remain unsaid. I have nothing against blogs in your style where the content is sanitised / anonymised. For good reason, the details of your calls and other incidents should remain anonymous.



  3. I agree.I also think that for your own sake, there is good reason to exercise caution about what you put on your blog, even if like me you're writing more for your own satisfaction than out of a desire to inform or educate others.

    For instance, if a person writes about what ugly, foul-smelling, complete and utter muppets their line managers are, and they are easily identifiable from their blog to people who know them, and they have identified the company they work for on their blog, then it only takes one troll to look up the company website, find those managers' email addresses and send them a link to the things that have been broadcast on the internet about them. This will not lead to a favourable performance review.

    It's important to remember the distinction between what one would write in a private journal, what one would discuss at home over a cuppa with close friends, and what one really wants to broadcast to the world for anyone to read and use as they will.

  4. You all make excellent points but I would question the lines some days, as Cod points out they are doing nothing on this issue because he's worried about his or her pay, I do have to question the motivations of that, it's easier just to keep your head down but not right. Some days, some of these people who play whistleblower, on something that they fundamentally see as wrong, damaged or broken. I admire them I don't see them as being unprofessional infact I hold them as an example for professionals everywhere in that they continue to hold onto their integrity and principles, as opposed to just ignoring the flaws in a system. I can't believe anyone who would remain silent on the flaws in the IND system for 15 years or wouldn't try to set the record straight… Also the excuse that “information is kept from the public for their own good” is an excuse I've heard many times echoed throughout history too many times to feel comfortable about, especially considering where it leads. It's one thing to not say anything because you could potentially damage a criminal case, but in my honest opinion it's quite another thing to keep your mouth shut about a miscarriage of justice. Not playing whistleblower because you're a “professional” isn't being professional it's quite the opposite infact.I'm not asking TR to tell all, I understand his need to respect peoples privacy but I do also believe he has the integrity to tell the truth when it is appropriate.

  5. Journalism is dangerous. Count the number of pages in the tabloids and divide by the number of news items (ie those not involving soap operas, sex or celebrities) the answer will be >1.There will be no items about journalists or editors abusing their wives, being alcoholic or having affairs because of a tacit agreement that they won't publish such things about themselves.

    The point: Journalists don't do journalism, because its dangerous.

  6. You seem to be forgetting about the reams of scandal stories that *are* ublished about journalists – see the kerfuffle over Rebekah Wade's domestic violence thing last year, for example. And that was in the tabloids.Now, you have to question whether it should have been in the tabloids because tabloids aren't *for* news. Not hard news, at any rate. Do the readers of the Sun really care about the domestic squabbles of the editrix of the News of the Screws? Almost certainly not — other papers ran the story only as infighting. Tabloid readers buy tabloids because they contain things they want to read, i.e. not news. To criticise them for that is disingenuous to say the least.

    In short, you are way off base in your “journalists don't do journalism” jibe.

  7. You know I must say that I am glad that I live in the States. I must first say that I feel your pain, I too am an EMT and also a firefighter and see and hear things that make me bust atthe seems to tell people. What I see as a benifit of living in the states is that we have our first admendment rights to speach and press. I dont know what its like for you all across the pond but i enjoy the freedom to speak freely and not have to worry about what may happenWilliam

  8. we have the freedom to speak freely. But we also have the freedom to take the consequences.With rights come responsibilities.

    Is it morally right to broadcast on the internet that you have found out that police are doing an operation to uncover a paedophile ring in X-town, and everything you know about the operation, thus exercising your “right to free speech” but blowing the operation and letting the paedophile ring's activities continue?

    Extreme example, but I think you get my point.

    If you're not “worrying about what may happen” then you're quite likely putting yourself and others at risk.

  9. Many “scoops” are really gossip. 32,000 pounds in a bag is gossip, if there is no actual evidence to show that it has wider public significance. (For instance, of someone's incompetence, or the like.) You were absolutely right to keep it to yourself. The media and the “participatory media” (good term!) need to concentrate on events with public meaning, and to provide their view of the context. And they need to stop all this goddamn breathless attention-grabbing bullshit.The media's upside down priorities is a large part of the reason the US elected a chimp analogue. People can't be bothered to find out what's really going on if nobody tells them, and they definitely can't be bothered if what time they have is taken up gawping at gossip. This crap has a steep price.

  10. “I too am an EMT and also a firefighter and see and hear things that make me bust atthe seems to tell people.”Yes, but you don't actually tell people, do you? This isn't a free speech issue as it is an issue of appropriate speech.

  11. I'm not a journalist, I'm not trained to be a journalist and to be fair I don't think I'm smart enough to be a journalist.In every sense of the word, you are a true journalist. Not by trade, or by training, but in the heart. This blog is your journal, an account of your real life, your reality, your experience. The myth of the 'objective journalist' is too widely perpetrated in our society, as human beings with emotions and opiions, there is no such thing as objectivity. The best one can hope for is fairness and honesty – your blog is the best example of pure, honest and true journalism I've read in a long time.I'm a student journalist, just embarking on my first editorship of our Uni newspaper. If I could ever write as well as you – as honestly, insightfully, and so much from the heart (rather than the head) I would consider my ambitions fulfilled. This sounds ridiculously flowery and pretentious, but I had to let you know, as a journalist, that your blog stuck a chord with me. Thanks for sharing.

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