Tag Archives: Robert-Dziekanski

Was Paul Pritchard a freelance journalist?

Via J-Source comes this blog post from Frank Moher complaining that the big TV outlets paid big money to Paul Pritchard, the guy who shot the video of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being Tasered at the Vancouver airport. Dziekanski later died from injuries he sustained during the incident, and that has prompted an investigation into Taser use by police.

Normally, paying for news is outright prohibited by journalistic ethics codes. The reason is simple: It encourages people to make news for profit rather than report on events for altruistic reasons.

The media’s response is that Pritchard was a freelance journalist, who sold his footage just like any freelance reporter would sell a story to a newspaper or magazine. He wasn’t directly involved in the incident, and he had no ulterior motive other than to expose what happened.

The ever-growing field of freelance journalism, where regular people are contracted and paid for individual stories rather than employed as a part-time or full-time journalist, provides for a certain loophole in these areas. Instead of paying a source for an interview, you can pay a “contributor” to discuss a topic with a news anchor, or pay a “columnist” for insights into insider politics or whatever else they might specialize in.

How do we separate the ethical from the unethical payola? And which side does Paul Pritchard fall on?

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.