Internet/Telecom/Social Media

So you wanna be a citizen journalist? Good luck with that.

Citizen journalist. Citizen journalist?

How does that adjective modify journalist? What is a citizen journalist? How does a citizen journalist differ from a plain, ink-stained (or digitally adept), adjective-unfettered journalist?

CJs (let’s call them that; it sounds cool) are in demand. MSNBC wants them. It asks, “Be part of the dialogue of the issues affecting everyone. Tell us YOUR story by being a Citizen Journalist ” on its website. But, MSNBC cautions: “MSNBC will not pay you for your Submission. MSNBC may remove your Submission at any time. ”

A collaboration between CNN and IBN, the Indian Broadcasting Network, really wants CJs. It especially likes the whistle-blowing kind: “Do you know any cases of bad corporate governance, illegal business practices or corruption in a government scheme? Become a CJ and share your story with the world.”

CNN-IBA’s lawyers, however, appear to be less supportive. The disclaimers regarding citizen journalists (the “Parties,” of course, are CNN and IBA):

Under no circumstances will the Parties be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to:

  • for any errors or omissions in any Content,
  • mistakes or inaccuracies of Content,
  • for any loss or damage of any kind incurred,
  • any interruption or cessation of transmission to or from the websites,
  • infringement of any third party rights

CNN, of course, runs the granddaddy of CJ operations with its “IReport” system. It really likes CJs (or IReporters, its preferred nomenclature): “Together, CNN and iReport can paint a more complete picture of the news. We’d love for you to join us. Jump on in, tell your story and see how it connects with someone on the other side of the world.”

CNN’s lawyers offer a different, fine-print view:

Users are solely responsible for anything contained in their submissions, message board and/or chat sessions. CNN does not verify, endorse or otherwise vouch for the contents of any submission, message board or chat room. Users may be held legally liable for the contents of their submissions, message board and chat sessions, and may be held legally liable if their submissions or chat sessions include, for example, material protected by copyright, trademark, patent or trade secret law or other proprietary right without permission of the author or owner, or defamatory comments.

And if that doesn’t impede your CJ career, read the 19-point “conduct” rules for IReporters, especially this: “You agree not to post or transmit through CNN iReport any material that is offensive to the online community, including blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, abusiveness, vulgarity or profanity …” [emphasis added]

Damned if I know what the “online community” would find “offensive.” So much for the commentary and analysis function of journalism. Stripped away by the adjective citizen in front of journalist.

Yahoo!, of course, welcomes CJs. It calls them “contributors” (and claims nearly 600,000 of them) or “voices.” But its legal backing of and confidence in these CJs is underwhelming:

Yahoo! Inc. (“Yahoo”) does not evaluate or guarantee the accuracy of any articles, videos or other posted information on the Yahoo! Contributor Network (“YCN”) (collectively, “YCN Content”). All YCN Content is provided by YCN Contributors in the YCN community, like you. None of the YCN content is written, or edited by Yahoo! employees. You agree that any use you make of such YCN Content is at your own risk and that Yahoo! is not responsible for any losses resulting from your reliance on any YCN Content on the YCN. YCN Content on the YCN Website should never be used as a substitute for advice from a qualified professional. [emphasis added]

Ouch. Your content, your neck. CJs get well paid for such risks, right?

Not really. Nearly eight years ago, Poynter’s Steve Outing, back in what he called the “very early days of citizen journalism,” said “psychic rewards” are insufficient compensation for CJs. Good work requires good pay, he said:

While most citJ content will remain uncompensated — because its quality isn’t high enough to get anyone to pay for it — the best of it will have a price tag. And publishers may have to adapt to paying for it. [emphasis added]

Remember how Arianna Huffington sold HuffPo to AOL for $315 million? Remember the details of the lawsuit? It claimed more than 9,000 people wrote uncompensated posts for HuffPo.

How many of these CJs can afford to be dedicated to a continual effort to further civil discourse on public issues supported by CJs’ continual research into their topics of coverage? How many of them have sufficient resources, both intellectual and financial, to keep their eyes on the ball, day after day, meeting after meeting, event after event, month after month, year after year?

No support, no corporate recognition beyond hype, no financial compensation. Citizen in front of journalist at the moment mostly means amateur.

The really good (or potentially good) CJs must figure out how to be compensated (beyond those “psychic rewards”), how to find more effective networks of promotion for their work, and how to find legal protections for their work (you know, like “shield laws”). When that happens, they’ll be just like the good folks at CNN and The New York Times and that little local daily in your home town.

They won’t be citizen journalists any more. They’ll just be journalists — and share the problems and opportunities professionals now face in a digitally mediated information universe.

4 replies »

  1. Excellent piece, Denny – I think this issue is directly related to the problems faced by any persons doing creative work these days. The Web relentlessly demands – like that plant in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS – but there seems to be a caste system. Content providers are considered of little, really no value (they should be happy with “exposure” which is worth the same amount as sites want to pay). Delivery systems (online or broadcast) seem to these minds to be the only elements of value. I wish writers, artists, photographers, journalists, musicians and other creatives would withhold content from these “exposure venues” for six months – I wonder how popular and revenue generating many of these sites would be if they had to leave content up for weeks because they weren’t getting (stealing? extorting?) “free” WORK…

    And screw their lawyers. If they “publish” the work, they should have to, by law, accept the risk….

  2. Thanks, Jim. You nailed it: Obesiance to delivery systems trumps regard for “content.”