Citizen Journalism Is A Farce

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A Citizen Journalist is no more of a Journalist than someone who gives you good personal advice is a Citizen Psychiatrist. It might well be time to ditch the idea of Citizen Journalism and call it what is: a witness with a recorder.

That was the overarching sentiment brought forward by David Simon the author, journalist and writer who is best known as the writer and producer for the TV series, Homicide – Life On The Streets, and the executive producer and head writer for the HBO television series, The Wire. In what could well be one of the better pieces of Internet video content that I have seen in years, Simon speaks candidly in his presentation titled, The Audacity of Despair, at Berkeley University‘s Townsend Center for the Humanities on September 10th, 2008 about the newspaper industry, publishing, media and the Internet.

Journalists are trained professionals and add tremendous value to our society by doing more than just reporting on the "who", "what", "when", "where" and "how" of Journalism (Simon says any five-year-old can do that), by asking and seeking out the all important question: "why?" He questions why most major newspapers no longer explore the "why," but instead offer up filtered news that does not address the real issues. His conclusions are a stunning indictment of an industry more concerned with selling widgets over real journalism.

Yes, people can act as witnesses, and now with modern technology they can record text, images, audio and video and publish it, but this does not make them Journalists. Even journalists who no longer work at a newspaper and have chosen a self-publishing route still follow professional rules, values and ethics that are created and nurtured after years of practicing their profession and not bestowed to all simply because publishing is easy and free (and yes, we all know that this does not apply to all Journalists and that there are more than few rotten apples).

If you’re at all curious about media and the publishing industry, Simon’s take is very different and fascinating. The topic of what a Journalist is in today’s society versus what Simon considers a "real Journalist" is coupled with his take on citizen journalism and makes this presentation well worth the watch. Back in May, I posted this: Is Witnessing The Same As Being A Journalist? asking similar (but not as direct) questions about who, really, is and should be considered a journalist in this day and age.

Final thought: after watching this presentation it made me realize (once again) how amazing the Internet truly is. Anyone is able to take part in a Berkeley University special presentation, share their thoughts and enjoy a piece of content that is probably only valuable to a very small segment of the overall population. The true power of the Internet is this: content finding the exact people it was meant to touch, move and inspire.

You can watch his presentation here: David Simon – The Audacity of Despair – Townsend Center For The Humanities (unfortunately, there is no "embed video" link).

Then, feel free to comment on whether or not you agree that Citizen Journalism is a farce?

(hat-tip to Hugh McGuire).


  1. I know I’m picking nits here, but what Simon means is PROFESSIONAL journalists. The definition of a “journalist” is someone who keeps a record of events. That could be anybody, without regard to the standards they uphold in the effort. If you do it for a living, employed or paid by somebody to do it, it’s another story.
    Whether Simon’s right is another discussion, but it’s also moot as more and more people turn to sources like Twitter to find out what’s news. Even the head of Newseum has noted that the definition of news has been broadened, evidenced by the Newseum’s section on blogging.
    Simon rocks, by the way, despite this opinion. If you haven’t read “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” you’re missing an amazing work.

  2. There are a lot of shades of gray here. Is someone who brings you an aspirin a doctor? Clearly, no. But someone who takes a CPR course can save your life.
    I think what there IS a huge place for is a range of information coming from a range of sources, professional and otherwise. I really like Jeff Jarvis’ idea of the “press-sphere”: — I think THAT is really the world we are in now and for the foreseeable future.

  3. Shel, thanks for pointing that out more clearly. I did say, “Journalists are trained professionals,” but you’re right I should have said, “professional journalists” (as I know that’s what Simon’s referring to).
    Jay, someone who takes a CPR course can save my life, but I won’t go see them after that if I don’t feel well – I’d much prefer a professional (as Shel says).
    Ultimately, there is room for both, but I think Simon is trying to demonstrate that we’re loosing something important in this transition. Take a look at the presentation and let me know what you think.

  4. Sure you won’t go see the the CPR guy again, but it’s a damn good thing he was were there in the first place! My point is that someone can be less than a professional but much more active and important than just a ‘witness’ as per Jarvis.
    But, to your point, I will watch the presentation before I comment again. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Absent from his (great) critique is that citizen journalism has arisen at least in part because the professional journalists & the companies that pay them are no longer doing their job, at least as he idealized the job when he was young and idealistic.
    And Jay & Shel are right, whether it’s good or bad, a pressosphere is what we have now, with the full range of reporters.
    To be fair to Simon, he’s not against the web journalism at all, he just has a high standard of what he expects of a journalist. What he *hopes* is that we will start to see more full-scale professional journalism on the web. It’s happening already, eg. … Interesting times.

  6. I think some of you are missing the point here. He’s not saying “citizen journalism” isn’t useful, but that the industry of professional journalism is doing nothing more than rewriting press releases and typing up what cops tell them.
    As he points out, the distinction isn’t between new and old media, it’s between media owners who see what they do as selling “product” that is acquired in the cheapest way possible (asking witnesses to tell stories) instead of having professionals doing the real work.
    Witnesses are good for saying what happened, but now why they happened. That job goes to journalists. Unfortunately, as he points out, that job is expensive and media owners don’t want to pay for it anymore.
    I hate Twitter. I think it’s pointless. The signal to noise ratio is much too high, its limitations are faults that are treated as if they were features.
    That doesn’t mean good stuff can’t come out of Twitter. But if you have to drugde through all the crap to get to it, then it means you’re doing the job of a journalist and you’re calling what you find journalism.

  7. Mitch I like this post alot. It also hits at a broader point. With democratization and the barriers to entry lowered that allows for the “untrained” to also participate (which has its pros and cons). But what I often debate with friends is that in all the hype about the new “web 2.0” whatever there is little ldiscussion about the lack of craft that exists in the market. Everyone can twitter… (so what) but everyone isn’t a critical thinker bringing something original/valuable to the discussion/twitter/blog table. Thanks for posting! Good stuff!

  8. Great post Mitch. I just submitted an essay on this very topic for an upcoming magazine feature so I won’t scoop my own article but suffice to say I agree generally with what you’ve written.
    I think the reason that the repuation (and business value) of traditional news media is that they are trying to beat ‘citizen journalists’ and bloggers and their own game. They sacrifice their professional training in the rush to get the story first.
    If journalism is going to survive, journalists have to stop trying to be first and focus on being the best.

  9. Thought provoking post Mitch, and great comments from all who responded.
    I think you have captured what has bothered me about “news.” I have recently tuned out to all traditional media – cancelled my newspaper subscription, don’t watch TV news, etc. because I was very much bothered by the sensationalism and the lack of depth.
    Joe’s comment above about “first” brought that into context for me. If I want to know “what” – I am going to know about it from several sources including citizen journalists. But when I want to know “why” – I want the professional journalist of old who delved into the substance of an issue. I tend to find that substance in bits and pieces on the Web, but I admit to missing it.
    I think that like all evolutionary processes, all who add real value will find a place (as Seth Godin points out so well).

  10. As a photo-journalist of twenty years. I’ve worked with top notch and embarrassingly poor journalists.
    Some people are excellent writers, some have an uncanny ability to make great contacts and others would bring tears to my eyes with brilliant questions. Not all where professionally trained. Some have been “citizen journalists”
    I think Steve Faguy makes an excellent point. The force behind main stream and corporate supported citizen journalism is saving money. Forget the news crew, tell our viewers to send a clips from their cell phones.
    It is all changing fast. Some good, some bad.

  11. While I’m not a fan of “citizen Journalist” I don’t think the Pro’s add that much to still demand their own distinction, seeing as they all work for a company, and that company is usually owned by another, some one up the chain is dictacting what’s news and what isn’t, you don’t need to go to j school, to take orders on what to report.
    I’d say while a blogger is a witness with a camera, a “pro” is a witness with credentials.
    I think journalists are throwing these herrings out as a means to save their place in society, as it’s quickly eroded.

  12. What is important to remember here is the connection of three factors.
    1) Media companies see an opportunity to acquire content and audience for free
    2) Reporting as always been a human desire. People like to talk about what they see and what they feel. This is not new.
    3) Technology has advanced so much in the past few years that reporting is now possible for everyone, at very low cost.
    I think Mitch’s last sentence says it all:
    The true power of the Internet is content finding the exact people it was meant to touch, move and inspire.

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