We can’t trust citizen journalists

Via J-Source, Paul Berton of the London Free Press asks “Can we trust citizen journalists?

His question is based on the amateur video of Robert Dziekanski being Tasered in the Vancouver airport. He would later die from the hit, raising questions about the safety of Taser use.

The video is certainly a great example of the kinds of things citizen journalism can accomplish, and how the ubiquity of video-capturing devices is changing what it means to be an eyewitness.

But my answer to the question of “can we trust citizen journalists” is still “No.”

My reasoning is simple: The trust you can place in journalism is no more than the trust you can place in the journalist behind it. With big media, journalists stand behind their stories, the media outlets stand behind their journalists, and the big media corporations stand behind their local outlets. It’s not perfect, but there’s a chain of accountability.

With citizen journalists, unless you know them, you have no clue about their motives, their ethics, their biases or anything else. They’re unknowns. The only basis for your trust is on the content itself and the plausibility of it. If it looks like it’s real, then it probably is. And with video, it’s almost always real.

But not always. Take this video of comedian Pauly Shore being punched out by a heckler at a comedy club. A fantastic example of citizen journalism, which got a lot of play online. The only problem is it was faked (see the making of). These “citizen journalists” were in on it, and went along with the gag. They can do that because they have no journalistic reputations to uphold, no employers enforcing ethics codes, and no one to answer to but themselves.

Citizen journalism can be useful if it’s corroborated. In this case, the RCMP confirmed the tape was athentic. Same deal with the SQ and their agents provocateurs.

That doesn’t mean so-called “citizen journalists” can’t build their own media and develop trust over time. Media gain trust through their reputations, and they’re motivated to follow ethical guidelines, be honest and not burn their readers. The trust can never be 100%, but it’s much higher than what some random person uploads to YouTube or writes unsourced on Wikipedia.

Citizen journalists are a wonderful source of original ideas and evidence. But they can’t be inherently trusted. Trust is earned, not given away. Nobody gets a free ride.

6 thoughts on “We can’t trust citizen journalists

  1. DAVE ID

    Atchou! I’m sorry I’m allergic to bullshit.

    Let’s take the reverse. Because you are preaching from your “I’m a journalist so I know better” pulpit. I preach from the “You can’t trust anyone” pulpit, especially corporations. Who owns media? corporations. Journalists have their content controlled by their corporate “masters” in sometimes subtle manners and in sometimes not so subtle manners.

    Was it not Reuteurs, that great bastion of Journalism that got busted doctoring war photographs to make the the war look much worse than it really was? (And the photoshop jobs are really bad)

    ORIGINAL: http://i21.photobucket.com/albums/b268/jelielsdistrurbance/20060806BeirutP.jpg

    FAUXTOSHOPPED: http://i21.photobucket.com/albums/b268/jelielsdistrurbance/20060805BeirutP.jpg

    I mean come on. And these are “respectable” real journalists and non-citizen journalists.

    And theres another one by our very own great CBC which I couldn’t find the link but I found the pictures. Where the boys at the CBC FAUXTOSHOPPED pictures of smokestacks to make them look even more polluted

    Capture of the story: http://i21.photobucket.com/albums/b268/jelielsdistrurbance/cbckyoto.jpg

    ORIGNAL: http://i21.photobucket.com/albums/b268/jelielsdistrurbance/top-kyoto.jpg

    FAUXTOSHOPPED: http://i21.photobucket.com/albums/b268/jelielsdistrurbance/top-kyoto2.jpg

    And as it is true that “citizen journalists” can be media whores with no code, “real journalists” can be media whores with no code. People who are paid, aren’t paid to irritate their bosses, but to deliver what their bosses ask of them also. And that boss must deliver to his boss and so forth until the shareholders are getting their moneys worth. How long do you think till arm twisting reaches down the bottom rung of journalism? How many have sold out? How many stupid puff pieces do we have to go through? How many attack-dog pieces from ideological journalists do we have to go through? How much news doctoring can there be?

    Just this sunday on 60 minutes, considered the last remaining “reliable news source” in America (and that isn’t saying much) they had a piece on the Canadian boy in Gitmo. He was capture on a TIP they said. They never mentioned that the American military offered generous bounties to anyone who offered information on the whereabouts of alleged Al-Qaeda terrorists. Huge sums on which a whole family could live for a very long time. There’s no way this could possibly push people to denounce anyone of witchcraft, I mean terrorism to simply to get the bounty no could it? Even the liberal 60 minutes whitewashes the news.

    So who can really be trusted? But then this is a blog run buy a blogger who writes journalism pieces for free here. Does that not make you a citizen journalist? Can you be trusted?

  2. blork

    You hit the nail on the head with “Citizen journalism can be useful if it’s corroborated.” The mistake a lot of people make is assuming that citizen journalism is parallel to big media journalism.

    That’s completely false. As you say, big media journalism has the weight of authority and reputation behind it (as well as the risk of distraction by corportate sponsorship). Citizen journalism is more about immediacy and perspective. It opens doors and presents information, but it’s really just a starting point. It can expose things that the mainstream misses (whether deliberately or not), but it can’t just be taken at face value.

    In other words, citizen journalism is more about raw data; but without corroboration and verification, it’s just that — raw data.

  3. Fagstein Post author

    Like I said, even big media can never be trusted 100%. But when frauds are exposed, there are investigations, apologies, hits to reputations. Sadly, it appears increasingly that news organizations struggling to make more money for their bosses are foregoing simple fact-checking and other quality control measures, putting too much faith in their journalists.

    But citizen journalism isn’t the answer to that. Many newspapers have stopped the practice (either through policy or just laziness) of verifying letters to the editor before they’re published. They cut and paste comments from web forums without verifying that claims made there are accurate. Trusting a stranger to get it right isn’t better quality control than trusting an professional journalist you employ to get it right.

    Citizen journalism, of course, can be useful in fact-checking in the same way they can bring ideas about new stories. The Reuters photo is a good example, and there are others. But it’s only good if they’re right. For every photo manipulation detector, there is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist doing “citizen journalism” to prove it was orchestrated by the government.

    As far as the ad hominems, I don’t expect anyone to trust me based on anything more than my reputation as a journalist and a blogger. Verify every fact I assert. Question every conclusion I reach. That’s what you should be doing.

  4. DAVE ID

    I’m just saying that bloggers shouldn’t be thrown out with the dirty bath water. Some bloggers have forced issues enough that news media have been forced to retract. Others have been insistent enough to change a whole publicity campaign. And others have made entire political shifts happen. Blogging despite its weakness has immense potential because the ability to transfer information faster than any other media distribution (sometimes good, sometimes bad). It’s a new application of democracy where distance no longer impedes.

    It’s bloggers that busted the bad journalism of Reuters and AP and CBC. AP used teddy bears and toys and placed them in debris before taking pictures. Or they took pictures of a man with an AK-47 in front of what seemed to be a city on fire… zoom in on the original picture and it’s actually the city dump that’s on fire. It’s courageous bloggers from the warzone that reported what was really going on in Iraq during the Shock and Awe attacks.

    I still believe in journalism, I just wish I could find some more of it. Most of it is crap (like most of what I read on blogs also, don’t worry I’m not delusional) because its slanted and badly researched of often just lifted material from other news sources. Watching the news on TV gives me flashbacks because I read all that crap days before on FARK. All the NOT-NEWS you could ever need plus Hockey News. Here’s Tom with the Weather.

    Print news is no better. I remember reading on the web that a leader of Hamas had been killed which could have destabilized the area. Then I get to a depanneur, see the Journal de Montreal and what’s on the front page? (this was a few years back) The broken dreams of contestant X on Star Academie. WTF? Top corner? Hockey. PKP was using the JDM to plug his show on his TV Network. WTF?

    And when papers like your Employer decided to do blatant career-damaging attacks on politicians like it did on Marois, simply because her ideology is despised (with reason IMHO) by TPTB at The Gazette, that ceases to be journalism and begins to be ideological warfare and a newspaper is not the place for such things. I seriously wonder how long the folks at The Gazette had been sitting on that story waiting for the perfect time to release it.

    I can’t trust that kind of journalism. I want fair and balanced (yikes where have I heard that before?) reporting and I’ll make my own judgment call, I’m smart enough to do it.

  5. Pingback: Fagstein » There’s no such thing as a journalist

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