Citizen Journalism

Here’s a phrase that brings anger to many working photographers. The idea of “CJ’s” stealing our income as they walk around with their camera phones (and occasionally compact cameras). They seem to crop up more and more as TV news stations and newspapers constantly advertise for pictures and stories from civilians. There are even specific agencies now set up to deal with this influx of imagery and text.

My personal views are that in situations where there is no media present, it has its place. This is well illustrated by images taken after the London terrorist bombings in 2005 of tube passengers walking up the tunnel after the explosion. However, it has its place if these members of the public who want the thrill of having their images published don’t put themselves in harms way or get in our way. The Police have the thought that the media has to be controlled; instead of Policing a scene, there are far too many resources allocated to restricting the press from working (and there are countless cases where officers have taken it on themselves to making photographers delete their images and censor our free press). However, CJ’s, because they are members of the public (which for some reason we’re not in the eyes of the Police!) are allowed closer to take their pictures or make their observations.
As a working photographer, I have a certain level of experience accumulated from years of working in dangerous or sensitive situations; knowing how close to get and how to behave without putting myself at risk or causing distress to the subject of the assignment who is probably having the worst day of their lives. CJ’s don’t have these qualities; its not their fault as they are accustomed to working in an office or a van.

The next big and highly important aspect of journalism (be it visual or written) is to make sure you get your facts right and don’t represent the story wrongly. Any reporter has to stand up their work by talking with all sides and making sure that facts are in fact facts and not fantasy.
A couple of days ago exactly the opposite of proper journalism happened on a web site dedicated to Citizen Journalism; this wasn’t a tiny little blog but a site created and run by CNN called iReport. One would think that anything run and backed by CNN would be of the highest calibre and that anything published on it would be absolutely true; alas, at least in one particular case, it wasn’t.

On Friday, a report was published on the web site saying that the man in charge of Apple, Steve Jobs CEO had suffered a serious heart attack and was rushed to hospital. There is no truth to this story at all, and Apple once it became aware, released a statement saying so. However, in the meantime apart from causing distress to Jobs’ relatives and friends, the story also had a dramatic impact on the company’s share prices. In an already volatile stock market, the panic caused a 10% drop in shares which later in the day rebounded back as the error in the story became common knowledge.

I’m not suggesting that my colleagues and I always get every story 100% right 100% of the time. There are occasions when errors are made; eye witnesses making things up, PR people spinning the truth, Police being unhelpful and putting us off track or simply a screaming news or picture editor demanding something to be filed as deadline hits. However, every effort is made to checking and cross checking; CJ’s do not make this effort.

I hope that this (which isn’t an isolated story) serves as a lesson to the organisations who love CJ’s as they sometimes get their “work” for free or at best pay them peanuts.

Visit the CNET site to read more on the way this latest mess unravelled.

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