Being Papparazi’ish Does Not Make You A Citizen Journalist.

I’m quite supportive of folks using social media and the web to their advantage as they want to report on the latest news. And it has worked pretty well in the past year or so since catching the attention of mainstream media.

Whether it’s the historic 2008 presidential election, the Miracle on the Hudson captured by Janis Krum,  or any other major event – social media has been there. While you won’t see immediate reporting by media companies like CNN, FOX News or MSNBC because they’ll need to vet their stories and get all the information first (which is a good practice to have), social media has enabled some trinkets of information to leak out and let the public know what’s going on.

But, what is the fine line between being discerned as a citizen journalist and being considered, well…papparazi’ish?

Let’s look at a recent tragic example and see if a line can be distinguished between the two:

On Saturday, former UK Guardian reporter and now regular columnist for TechCrunch, Paul Carr, wrote an interesting piece about how, in my mind, citizen journalism went horribly awry on a variety of levels. The event that centered around this was the tragic attack on Fort Hood this past week that left 12 dead and dozens more wounded. Carr writes:

…the first news and analysis out of the base didn’t come from the experts. Nor did it come from the 24-hour news media, or even from dedicated military blogs – but rather from the Twitter account of one Tearah Moore, a soldier from Linden, Michigan who is based at Fort Hood, having recently returned from Iraq.

By this time, the base had been placed on lockdown and authorities were swarming the base looking for at least one shooter. The general public had no idea what was going on until apparently someone – Tearah Moore – decided to take out her cell phone and start tweeting. At this point, I’m thinking that her tweeting and giving information from what she is observing could still be considered citizen journalism: she’s reporting on what she’s seeing and giving factual information…or so you think.

Unsurprisingly, Moore’s – coverage was quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike, something that she actively encouraged by tweeting to friends that they should pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth, rather than the speculative bullshit that was hitting the wires.

And then it all hits the fan. Carr writes in his TechCrunch article that it all turned out to be “bullshit”. The facts that Moore tweeted out turned out to be completely false and subsequent tweets made it seem way more unethical and less innocent – truly unbecoming of an eyewitness than a color commentator on the scene. How do you figure? Here are a few of the tweets that we can examine:

TLT_citizenjournalist001

Just by looking at this series of tweets by Moore pulled from Twitter Search, you can see how this described “soldier girl” is offering more bias than that of a journalist. Out of the seven listed tweets during the tragic attack, perhaps only one would be considered to be newsworthy & journalistic. What perhaps proved why this wasn’t citizen journalism was the fact that (1) according to Carr, she “actively encouraged” in tweets to friends that they should “pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth” and (2) violated ethical guidelines and privacy by posting photos of people in hospitals – mainly HIPAA laws – and human decency.

I believe that if you’re truly interested in being a citizen journalist, then look at the “success” of those relaying information at events during the Mumbai terrorist attacks and even during the Iranian elections. In those instances, these citizen journalists were not seeking out fame and notoriety. Rather, they were posting information about hotels being set ablaze, Revolutionary Guards arresting protesters, etc. and were giving accurate information. Granted, not all citizen journalists are citizen journalists. Not everyone who tweets, posts video or photos about an event or story are journalists…they may have an opinion. Social media has allowed us to tell stories, but in order to consider yourself a journalist, you must also adhere to those standards – even if you’re a blogger or simply a twitterer. Basic decency, ethics and morals would be great starting points to discover who really understands what it takes to tell the world what’s going on & proving you’re the real eyes on the ground.

As Carr wrote in his TechCrunch post: for all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands [of] people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved.

Don’t mistake the fact that because you’re trying to be the first to have that killer photo, exclusive video, first interview or twitter that great sound byte, that you’re also a journalist. Think and understand what you’re writing. Just like in all forms of communication – show us the value, not the money you want to make because of your glamor shots & misinformation.

Editors Note: Photo above taken from @missTearah’s Twitpic account blurred to ensure privacy for all. To see the original photo, please click here.

Update: The photo originally posted above has been removed after a request by its creator. You can still view the original photo by clicking here.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the stories of the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently the Technology Editor at Flipboard, where he observes what's happening in the space while also identifying new topics of interest. In addition, he co-hosts the weekly internet show "The Created Economy," which focuses on what's happening to creators and influencers. Previously, he was a reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding. Ken also has a newsletter you should also subscribe to called "Filed."