Why the man who tweeted Osama bin Laden raid is a citizen journalist

When I wrote earlier this week about how quickly people around the world learned that Sohaib Athar had “live tweeted” the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, I thought carefully before calling him a citizen journalist.

Now Dan Mitchell has given me the opportunity to explain my thinking. In a SF Weekly post headlined “No, Twitter hasn’t replaced CNN,” Mitchell writes, “In the wake of the assassination, new-media pundits are hailing the event as another victory for social media over traditional media.”

Referring to my description of Athar as a citizen journalist, Mitchell writes, “Because he wondered on Twitter, in real time, now he’s a ‘citizen journalist.’ … Wondering on Twitter why there are helicopters flying around your neighborhood isn’t journalism.”

True, it isn’t. But Athar is not a citizen journalist simply because he wondered about something on Twitter. Rather, he’s a citizen journalist because when he came across an unusual event, he acted in a journalistic manner.

Athar is an excellent example of what we at Poynter have taken to calling the Fifth Estate: people who aren’t trained as journalists, but undertake journalistic endeavors. Some are bloggers, some run independent, hyperlocal news sites, some simply find themselves in the middle of a newsworthy event and start acting like journalists.

Here are the journalistic activities that Athar, aka @ReallyVirtual, demonstrated in his tweets during and after the raid on bin Laden’s compound.

He observed something unusual and told others about it. For example:

  • Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”
  • A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S”

He answered questions from others seeking information. A Twitter user asked Athar, “@ReallyVirtual Hello sir, any update on the blasts? What has really happened?”

Athar answered: “@m0hcin all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 km away too… the helicopter is gone too.”

When one person asked whether the helicopter was shot down or crashed, Athar responded: “@smedica people are saying it was not a technical fault and it was shot down. I heard it CIRCLE 3-4 times above, sounded purposeful.”

He acted as a conduit for information, sharing what he knew as he learned it. In response to another tweet, Athar tweeted, “@m0hcin the few people online at this time of the night are saying one of the copters was not Pakistani…”

Later Athar said: “The abbottabad helicopter/UFO was shot down near the Bilal Town area, and there’s report of a flash. People saying it could be a drone.”

At one point, he told people, “Here’s the location of the Abbottabad crash according to some people >>> http://on.fb.me/khjf34

Some of what he relayed was incorrect. He acknowledged some bits were rumor; other times he noted the source:

  • Report from a taxi driver: The army has cordoned off the crash area and is conducting door-to-door search in the surrounding”
  • Another rumor: two copters that followed the crashed one were foreign Cobras – and got away”
  • Report from a sweeper: A family also died in the crash, and one of the helicopter riders got away and is now being searched for.”

He sought reports from news sources and shared them. An hour after the incident, he tweeted a link to an initial news story about a helicopter crash.

Later he tweeted a link to another report and said the crash “could actually be the training accident scenario they’re saying it was.” (The story now describes the bin Laden connection; at the time it didn’t.)

Soon after, he retweeted accounts from a local news source:

“A Major of the #Pakistan #Army’s 19 FF, Platoon CO says incident at #Abbottabad where #helicopter crashed is accidental and not an “attack”

“The Major also says no “missiles” were fired and all such exaggerated reports are nothing but rumours #Pakistan”

He traded what he had heard with others in a shared effort to figure out what was going on. When Athar said he had heard the helicopter circle three or four times, another person responded, “@ReallyVirtual 3-4 times is a little less. I’ve been hearing helicopter flying since 12.35 am may be 10-12 times!”

A photo taken by a local resident shows the wreckage of a helicopter next to the wall of the compound where, according to officials, Osama bin Laden was shot and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Mohammad Zubair/AP)

Athar said, “@smedica It must have been more, I started noticing the helicpoter when the noise got irritating – which part of Abbottabd are you in?”

When a user tweeted that a news outlet was reporting that two Chinook helicopters had been involved, Athar told him, “@kursed Well, there were at least two copters last night, I heard one but a friend heard two, for 15-20 minutes.”

He analyzed what was happening. Professional journalists don’t simply transcribe; they try to make sense of what’s going on. So did Athar:

  • Since taliban (probably) don’t have helicpoters, and since they’re saying it was not ‘ours’, so must be a complicated situation #abbottabad
  • “@tahirakram very likely – but it was too noisy to be a spy craft, or, a very poor spy craft it was.”

At 10:45 pm ET, when Twitter was abuzz with speculation about what President Obama would say in his speech, Athar retweeted this thought from another user:

“I think the helicopter crash in Abbottabad, Pakistan and the President Obama breaking news address are connected.”

Any one of these activities may simply amount to conversation among friends. Taken together, it looks like journalism.

The difference between a witness and a citizen journalist

My previous reporting on citizen journalism has me thinking that there’s a ladder of journalistic activities, starting at the bottom with actions that are not uniquely journalistic.

Let’s start at the bottom of the ladder: witnessing something newsworthy. That alone doesn’t make you a citizen journalist.

The next level up would be sharing what you witnessed. In the past, we were limited in how we did this. No one called it citizen journalism if you told your friends about the bank robbery you saw.

But digital publishing tools like blogs, Twitter, Flickr and Ustream mean that simply by sharing something, you act as a publisher. So if you’re Janis Krums and tweet a photo of a U.S. Airways plane in the Hudson River, you’re acting both as a witness and a publisher.

Other activities move you further up the ladder: seeking corroborating evidence, interviewing people, vetting sources, confirming information before sharing it, analyzing what happened, providing context. Each one is a specialized type of journalistic activity.

Journalism in plain view

In the professional journalism model that existed until recently, the only evidence of this work was the final product. The story or news package was the tip of the iceberg above the water; everything else was below the surface.

Twitter has enabled journalists – professionals and amateurs – to do this work in plain sight. The means of newsgathering can be the means of publishing, and both types of tweets are intermingled. The tweets are journalism — simultaneously process and end product.

Some have taken to calling NPR’s Andy Carvin a one-man news agency because he has modeled this public-facing form of newsgathering and publishing: finding sources, retweeting first-person accounts, asking people how they know things, seeking confirmation and verification and adding occasional commentary.

I don’t think Sohaib Athar’s work a few nights ago is as deliberate or effective as Carvin’s. An amateur slugger probably won’t hit a home run off a major league pitcher, but they’re both playing baseball.

If Carvin’s a professional journalist, Athar is a citizen journalist. (And if you don’t think Carvin’s a journalist, then perhaps your definition of journalism relies too heavily on tools like a typewriter and a notepad, rather than activities, no matter how they’re conducted.)

What becomes of the citizen journalist after the news event has passed?

In the hours after Athar’s role was discovered, he gained about 85,000 Twitter followers. SF Weekly’s Mitchell questions whether the massive increase in Athar’s followers makes him a citizen journalist. On its own, it doesn’t. But his large following means he now has a distribution network, which he can use however he likes.

And in the days after the raid, he decided to use it to act like a journalist, posting photos of the compound and of the media covering the story.

Mitchell notes this, but questions its significance: “That is cool, but now the place is swarming with reporters with much better equipment and access to better information.”

I’m not sure that the reporters who have swarmed into Abbottabad have “better information.” Athar himself has noted how the media has misreported facts relating to his town and his tweets about the raid.

As for tools, with every passing month, more journalists are using consumer devices to do their jobs. These devices lower the cost of newsgathering and enable self-publication. Why do we celebrate this when professionals use these tools in this way and denigrate it when regular people do?

Professionals vs. amateurs

I’m starting to think that professional journalists get more caught up with the “citizen journalist” label than the citizen journalists themselves. Perhaps “citizen journalists vs. journalists” is the new “bloggers vs. journalistsdebate.

Sometimes people’s glee about the power of social media and new forms of journalism looks a lot like a celebration of the decline of professional journalism. We shouldn’t extrapolate that to mean that there is a competition between emerging and longstanding forms of media, in which one side must win and the other lose. (That doesn’t mean that the professionalization of amateurs doesn’t have an impact on the people who do this work for a living.)

What Athar did was journalistic. Social media brought it to the attention of professional journalists, who wrote about what he observed. Some of these stories simply noted that he heard some of the sounds of the raid. Others focused on the changing ways that we become informed about our world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of works of journalism were created as these professionals brought the news to their audiences.

Athar added to the body of knowledge. We know more about the raid, and about how people share information, because of him. That’s a good thing. No news consumers lost out here, whether they’re CNN viewers or Athar’s followers. And no professionals did, either.

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  • Anonymous

    Andrew, this makes no logical sense to me. Under your proposal, “schmuck journalist” would work as well as anything else.

    Plus, how can you possibly know that those criticizing the term “citizen journalist” feel “harmed” by it? I recoil at the abuse of logic and the English language, but I, for one, feel no harm.

  • Anonymous

    Amateur sounds good to me. Citizen makes no sense at all. But it won’t catch on: the people who are trading on the citizen journalism term have too much invested in it, even though they are unable (see Jay Rosen above) to defend it in any way that makes logical sense.

  • Anonymous

    Amateur sounds good to me. Citizen makes no sense at all. But it won’t catch on: the people who are trading on the citizen journalism term have too much invested in it, even though they are unable (see Jay Rosen above) to defend it in any way that makes logical sense.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t think you could pull it off. Looks like I’m right.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t think you could pull it off. Looks like I’m right.

  • Anonymous

    Or casual journalist.

  • Anonymous

    According to Wikipedia, An amateur is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training.

    Seems like “Amateur” is the best word to use in this scenario. So we should just call Athar an “Amateur Journalist” and just move on.

  • Anonymous

    According to Wikipedia, An amateur is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training.

    Seems like “Amateur” is the best word to use in this scenario. So we should just call Athar an “Amateur Journalist” and just move on.

  • Pingback: This Week in Review: Talking Bin Laden on Twitter, journos’ online freedom, and Apple gets a taker » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  • Anonymous

    As I see it, journalists just want to make the point that professionalism matters — that training, experience, access, collaboration with other professionals make a person much more consistently reliable than someone who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Sure, occasionally a “citizen journalist” will get a great scoop or do a great job on a story; and follow the army of citizen journalists if you want. You won’t know what you’re missing. But if you want reliable and consistent and informed coverage of the world around you, you have to have people who are dedicated to the craft of journalism.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @google-bc0e4f423f43b38438eaac30586636a1:disqus I agree. Some of his tweets and the “Not so Frequently Asked Questions” page (where he answers questions from Twitter users who use the hashtag #q2rv) have an understated wit.

    http://reallyvirtual.com/nsfaq/

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @facebook-100000669729095:disqus “You prove your point about professional journalists being more wrapped
    in the label than amateurs by writing a long piece about it.”

    Touche, Dan…

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Berman/100000669729095 Dan Berman

    Why label him at all? You prove your point about professional journalists being more wrapped in the label than amateurs by writing a long piece about it. Journalism has become a profession over the lat 40 years. I think it’s silly to call anyone a “citizen journalist.” The experience and training count for a lot.

    http://pinetarandbrickbats.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.coffeehousetalks.com Andrew

    I think the point is that there’s a qualifier there at all. Elsewhere in the thread Dan suggests the football analogy equivalent is “citizen professional football player,” but that’s kind of ridiculous because then the parallel would be “citizen professional journalist.” The fact that we put *any* qualifier there does the trick, as Jay says, and in this case “citizen” just makes sense because there is a civic component to journalism that doesn’t exist in being a mechanic or football player. No one’s insisting on the word–it just got adopted. The only people making a big deal of it are the ones that feel harmed by it, for whatever reason, which, I suppose, only makes sense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=575037238 Eugene Driscoll

    First, I love academic journobabble.

    Second, I edit a small, non-profit news site in Connecticut. I used some untrained writers for more than a year.

    Many of those articles were sub-par and required extensive editing. I thought anyone could do my job. I no longer think that.

    Third, I’ve seen the public use the term ‘citizen journalism’ to imply that reporters are worthless. I disagree.

    Fourth, most newspaper companies I worked for also thought reporters were worthless, if salaries mean anything.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=575037238 Eugene Driscoll

    First, I love academic journobabble.

    Second, I edit a small, non-profit news site in Connecticut. I used some untrained writers for more than a year.

    Many of those articles were sub-par and required extensive editing. I thought anyone could do my job. I no longer think that.

    Third, I’ve seen the public use the term ‘citizen journalism’ to imply that reporters are worthless. I disagree.

    Fourth, most newspaper companies I worked for also thought reporters were worthless, if salaries mean anything.

  • John Zorabedian

    Incredibly brave too.

  • http://profiles.google.com/facesay Casey Wimsatt

    Sohaib started blogging more than a few years ago about his country and his life (www.reallyvirtual.com). He is not just an IT guy, but is and has been an honest, insightful and intelligent writer. I hope his writing flourishes.

  • http://profiles.google.com/facesay Casey Wimsatt

    Sohaib was an accidental tweeter of a significant event, but what’s overlooked in this discussion is the writing and wit of his follow-up posts. He’s not just a tech guy. He’s a writer. He’s a great addition to the diminishing sources of original reporting. I hope he uses his following to write more, once he’s done answering all the silly questions :-).

  • http://twitter.com/michaelbeaudin Mike Beaudin

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    Sohaib Athar’s observations through Twitter were followed by
    stories from a legion of so-called professional journalists who initially
    reported that there was an intense, chaotic gunfight; that bin Laden shielded
    himself with a female hostage; that bin Laden was armed with an AK-47 in a
    fight to the death; that the SEAL team had to kill bin Laden because he reached
    for a weapon.

    Professional journalists, in subsequent stories, reported
    that of the five people killed in the raid, only one was armed. So much for the
    firefight. Seems like a lot of professional journalists just served up whatever
    the sources in the White House gave them and passed it off as factual reporting
    without any verification.

    How about the “Rot In Hell” and “We got the Bastard”
    headlines penned by professional journalists who, no doubt, were also schooled
    in the practice of accuracy and objectivity.

    Citizen journalist Athar shared his unfiltered Twitter posts
    through first-hand observation. His account turned out to be more accurate than
    the professional reporting that followed.

  • Anonymous

    Jay,
    Thanks for responding to my question. However, you haven’t really answered it. I understand the phenomenon you are describing. My question is why come up with a term like “citizen” journalist, and continue to use it, when it makes no logical sense.

    You write the “citizen journalism…annoys the heck out of some people, but it does the job. It says, “this is different from what professional journalists do.” But it doesn’t do that. Professional journalists are citizens too. So what does “citizen” describe? I know you believe words are very important. You’ve said so yourself. I’m just interested in an honest, jperhaps even persuasive defense of the continued use of that term.

    Thank You
    H

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    I don’t think “threatened” is the right word. “Bemused,” maybe. Amused, certainly. I think it’s great to have people like Athar doing stuff like this, and I’m not threatened by it at all — there is no threat, which is sort of my point. I just think “citizen journalism” is an inane, and confusing, construction. And in the case of certain media theorists, it’s freighted with all kinds of baggage.

    I also think it’s great to have more people more involved in journalism (by way of input, mostly) because it helps us do our jobs better. But that doesn’t mean we’re all journalists now. It just means the audience *as the audience* now has a lot more power, which is mostly — but not entirely (comments sections, etc) — a good thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    I guess that’s sort of the point — “amateur” takes away all those criteria in a way that “citizen” doesn’t. Just as flag football players are amateurs, and nobody expects them to adhere to all the things (risks, etc.) that professional players do. If I said I was an amateur mechanic, nobody would bat an eye. If I said I was a “citizen mechanic,” people would look at me like I was nuts, and rightfully so.

    So why not go with amateur? Is there any reason for insisting on “citizen” other than to try to marginalize journalism as a profession that has standards, ethics, expected degrees of quality, etc.?

    I said Athar was a journalist for the sake of argument — as I explicitly stated. He’s actually not one. Or at least, he wasn’t on that night — not even an amateur one. He was a guy complaining about helicopters making noise in the middle of the night. Since then, he’s been tweeting some interesting stuff — which I guess makes him an amateur journalist, and good for him. He is indeed adding to our body of knowledge in that way.

  • http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu Jay Rosen

    I think you’re all over the map.

    You have conceded that what Athar did was a kind of journalism. You have insisted that he cannot be called a “journalist.” Here is what you said (before) in insisting that the title “journalist” should be denied to Athar, even though what he did was a kind of journalism.

    “Being a journalist comes with all kinds of particular duties, risks, responsibilities, and benefits. If a person wants to take on all of those and actually produce journalism on a sustained basis, I’ll be glad to call that person a journalist, whether they’re working for no money in their proverbial basement or in the newsroom of The New York Times. Until then — simply not a journalist.”

    and…

    “If a ‘citizen journalist’ decides to take on the duties, risks, responsibilities, rights and privileges of being a journalist, then he or she is a journalist. But he or she has to take all those things on: the risk of libel suits, of being beaten up, harassed or even killed, of losing one’s career or reputation. The duties to confirm information, to double- and triple-check sources, to not put others at unnecessary risk. Just to make sure people’s names are spelled right. Etc.”

    Now you say it’s okay to call Athar a journalist after all. As long as we put the word “amateur” in front of it. No more “has to risk being killed.” No more “has to confirm information, to double- and triple-check sources.” No more “has to produce on a sustained basis.” You’re willing to forget all those previous demands if you can just get the word amateur in there. And yet you say that your’re not trying to protect the club of pro journalists?

    Still, amateur journalist is accurate. Like, Steve, I have no problem with the term. Citizen journalist is accurate. I have no problem with that term, either. Accidental journalist is accurate too.

    Cheers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=29607674 Sean Wardwell

    Here’s my two cents.

    If we define journalism as simply the conveying of information from sender to receiver, then this guy is a journalist for committing an act of journalism, even if he didn’t know what he was doing at the time. Maybe a pro could have compiled the twitter feed into a more artistic narrative, but that’s irreverent. Information sent. Information received. It’s interesting to boot.

    I don’t know what sub-category he fits in and, quite frankly, I don’t really care. I’m a journalist. I get paid to report news. I’ve devoted a chunk of my life to it. So, I like the title and would like to believe it sets me apart a little. But, that’s purely an ego thing, which is what this entire citizen journalist vs. journalist thing boils down to. We like the title and what it represents, or at least what it used to represent. We want to believe we’re special and separate from the public we serve. The truth is, if you admit that anyone can have that title, you also admit something we don’t like admitting on this job – anyone can do it. Given some time, training and natural aptitude for writing, combined with a tolerance for low pay and abuse, anyone can indeed be a journalist.

    If I absolutely have to draw a line between journalists and not-journalists, I draw it here (with the help of the SPJ Code of Ethics). A journalist is someone who reports fact/truth, seeks to minimize harm, acts independently and is accountable for their words. If people meet those conditions, congrats, they’re a journalist. Welcome to the club. Here’s a map to the closest bar. You’ll thank me later.

  • Anonymous

    On the discussion of the “profession of journalism” and whether an amateur journalist may belong…

    While journalism can be a career, I would not call it a profession. Professions have required courses of higher education and revocable membership based on laws and government-issued licenses. Journalism is not that. It’s just something you do. Some people do it very well, and do it their whole lives, but that doesn’t make it a profession, and that doesn’t mean someone else can’t do it opportunistically.

    We would better understand it by thinking of other skilled activities, such as driving. Some people make skilled careers of driving big, complicated tractor-trailers. Some people race high-performance vehicles at 200mph. Some people drive buses or limos or bulldozers that most of us don’t have the training or experience to pull off. But it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t hop in a car and drive ourselves to the store.

    That’s not a perfect analogy, of course. Driving requires a license, which doesn’t apply in journalism. But the point is there are different degrees and types of journalism, but they’re all real and they’re all important and they can get along together.

  • http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu Jay Rosen

    I mentioned a club. It was me. That is my term. My interpretation of what Dan is doing. He is excluding Athar from the club he’s in. Obviously Dan disagrees. He doesn’t think he’s doing that. I do. That’s not making stuff up. That’s called “criticism.”

    As for defining citizen journalism, I did that three years ago in this blog post:

    http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html

    My definition says, “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.”

    But since some people with backgrounds in pro journalism seem to have strange reactions to this term, which we have seen demonstrated in this thread, I also said that if we called it “accidental journalism,” or “witness journalism” or “OMG journalism” we would be designating the same thing: the people formerly known as the audience employing the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.

    Which is exactly what Athar was doing that night in Pakistan.

  • Anonymous

    Jay, rather than engage in personal invective, and rather than make stuff up (club? who mentioned a club?) perhaps you could defend the term “citizen journalist.” You can’t defend it by saying other terms would do as well — you have chosen this term.

    What does it mean? Citizens doing journalism? Does that mean professional journalists are citizen journalists, too? Because they are, the term loses all meaning . (Or, as a academic might say, it doesn’t “delimit” anything.) It’s hard logic.

    Really, can you answer straightforward question that goes straight to the core of the intellectual stance supporting your academic career? Why “citizen?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/juliewestfall Julie Westfall

    I think we should stop worrying about what label to put on this guy. How about we just settle on what he was? A guy who doesn’t happen to work for a news organization, who heard a helicopter, and tweeted about it. That he was tweeting about a newsworthy event was later checked by people who get paid to deliver facts and can’t afford to get it wrong.

    Also, why would anyone be threatened by someone reporting something that journalists didn’t know about, and therefore couldn’t report themselves at the time? Shouldn’t we just be glad he spoke up?

  • Anonymous

    My main problem is the conflation of the tool with the qualifications of those you’re calling “citizen journalists.” Technically, journalism is not a profession. No one is board certified. But many decades of modern journalism have produced an implied professional code that most of those paid as journalists subscribe to, at least in theory: in part, a journalist is fair, accurate, and insightful. With rare exceptions, it takes years of practice to meet those qualifications with regularity.If the helicopter tweeter continues to perform like a journalist on a sustained basis, I’d have no problem with you or him calling him a journalist. My guess is he won’t, but who knows.

    By conflating great new tools with qualifications we are basically making everyone a journalist. And if everyone is a journalist, no one is a journalist. Standards and practices will continue to degrade.

    Thanks for the good discussion.

    Best
    HRMHRM

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Dan and hrmhrm,

    Though I find the visceral response to the term “citizen journalist” interesting, I have no problem with calling this “amateur journalism.”

    I used the term “citizen journalist” because it’s the most commonly accepted term and because it connotes the connection between journalism and civic duty. (Of course I’m not implying that professional journalists are not citizens. Nor that all amateurs are civic-minded.)

    Dan, I think we’ve come to a key disagreement here, from one of your other comments: “This is the crux of the problem: ‘Journalist’ and ‘journalism’ are words that define a profession, not an activity. Jay Rosen seems, for whatever reason, to believe it’s NOT actually a profession. But it is.”

    It’s both. If you believe it’s solely a profession, and not an activity, then you are missing a lot of the changes that are happening in media today. These changes mean that professional journalists still have an important role to play. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to outsource all journalism to just anyone. It means that the tools exist, and the interest is there, for people to engage in journalistic endeavors.

    Journalism is something you do. Whatever we call this, it’s a real thing that deserves our attention.

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    My belief is important. OK, not sure what that means, but I’ll say this: I believe in connecting with audiences — more, probably, than most journalists do — which is why I maintain two Twitter feeds, answer emails from readers whenever I can, and participate in comments forums, etc.

    But helping amateur journalists become better amateur journalists isn’t “connecting with audiences.” I welcome readers into the discussion, I seek out and welcome their (sane) input, but I have neither the time nor the mental energy nor any incentive to train them to be journalists. That’s what journalism schools and, even better, small newspapers are for. If I were the editor of such a paper, and wanted to train a journalist, I would hire them. At which point they wouldn’t be amateurs, but trainees. But I’m a freelance journalist, not a manager. I have enough trouble just keeping it together for myself — kind of like the profession as a whole, come to think of it.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Dan,

    Your belief that you don’t need to help citizen journalists do this work better is important.

    We at Poynter believe that an important element of journalism is understanding and connecting with audiences. News orgs didn’t focus on this enough back when they were comfortable monopolies that measured their audience by circulation rather than site traffic. This is such an important element that I think it should be a priority of news orgs, not just individual journalists.

    Great work that doesn’t connect with its audience, or never finds it in the first place, doesn’t live up to its potential. If you think finding and connecting with your audience is part of the work, then you will try to understand that audience — how they get information and what they value. 100,000 people started following Athar after he tweeted the raid, indicating that they saw his work as having some value. I think we should try to understand why.

    You’re incorrect in your assertion that Athar “has expressed zero interest — indeed, negative interest — in being thought of as a journalist.” I believe you’re referring to this tweet: “I am JUST a tweeter, awake at the time of the crash. Not many twitter users in Abbottabad, these guys are more into facebook. That’s all.” He posted that after he had been identified as the guy who live-tweeted this without knowing it.

    But you’ve read too much into that statement. I asked Athar if he considers himself a citizen journalist, and here’s what he told me just now:

    “To answer your question, I think you can call me a citizen journalist of sorts – I have been writing off and on here and there, for example http://greenwhite.org/blog/2008/10/24/rentacoder-says-stay-away-from-pakistanis/ and http://lahore.metblogs.com/2008/09/05/lahore-electric-shortage-company/

    “I have written when I wanted, though it is not my job and as you probably know, I am rejecting offers to get paid for interviews etc. In Abbottabad (and due to my freelancing career which lets my maintain my schedule) I have been able to move around and actually proactively report on topics, simply because I don’t want another mess to be created in my city, current or hometown, and my country.”

    Judging by what he told me, he’s motivated by a sense of civic duty. Hence the term “citizen” is meaningful here.

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Dan,

    Your belief that you don’t need to help citizen journalists do this work better is important.

    We at Poynter believe that an important element of journalism is understanding and connecting with audiences. News orgs didn’t focus on this enough back when they were comfortable monopolies that measured their audience by circulation rather than site traffic. This is such an important element that I think it should be a priority of news orgs, not just individual journalists.

    Great work that doesn’t connect with its audience, or never finds it in the first place, doesn’t live up to its potential. If you think finding and connecting with your audience is part of the work, then you will try to understand that audience — how they get information and what they value. 100,000 people started following Athar after he tweeted the raid, indicating that they saw his work as having some value. I think we should try to understand why.

    You’re incorrect in your assertion that Athar “has expressed zero interest — indeed, negative interest — in being thought of as a journalist.” I believe you’re referring to this tweet: “I am JUST a tweeter, awake at the time of the crash. Not many twitter users in Abbottabad, these guys are more into facebook. That’s all.” He posted that after he had been identified as the guy who live-tweeted this without knowing it.

    But you’ve read too much into that statement. I asked Athar if he considers himself a citizen journalist, and here’s what he told me just now:

    “To answer your question, I think you can call me a citizen journalist of sorts – I have been writing off and on here and there, for example http://greenwhite.org/blog/2008/10/24/rentacoder-says-stay-away-from-pakistanis/ and http://lahore.metblogs.com/2008/09/05/lahore-electric-shortage-company/

    “I have written when I wanted, though it is not my job and as you probably know, I am rejecting offers to get paid for interviews etc. In Abbottabad (and due to my freelancing career which lets my maintain my schedule) I have been able to move around and actually proactively report on topics, simply because I don’t want another mess to be created in my city, current or hometown, and my country.”

    Judging by what he told me, he’s motivated by a sense of civic duty. Hence the term “citizen” is meaningful here.

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    hrmhrm raises an excellent question below: why not “amateur journalist?” It’s not perfect either, but it’s surely better — clearer, more definitive, less confusing — than “citizen journalist,” no? It makes it clear that journalism is a profession, but that some people do it as amateurs, as with many other professions.

    I’d love to hear your answers, Steve, Jay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    hrmhrm raises an excellent question below: why not “amateur journalist?” It’s not perfect either, but it’s surely better — clearer, more definitive, less confusing — than “citizen journalist,” no? It makes it clear that journalism is a profession, but that some people do it as amateurs, as with many other professions.

    I’d love to hear your answers, Steve, Jay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=669985636 Christopher Yasiejko

    The man on Twitter was, indeed, a tipster. He tipped off hundreds, then thousands, now millions of people around the world. That “one thing” he saw? Quickly put into context, identified as irregular and followed by updates that were no less substantiated than when networks broadcast live any whispers about what they like to call a “fluid situation.”

  • Anonymous

    “Citizen journalist” is an empty phrase anyway. Are professional journalists not citizens?

    One thing “citizen journalist” has over “amateur journalist” though: no one will pay you to write about amateur journalism. Good for you, Steve, it’s a tough job market out there.

  • Anonymous

    Steve writes> To work with the sports analogy, pro football players don’t worry that flag football leagues devalue what they do. When those amateurs watch the game on Sunday, they do it with a deeper understanding of, and interest in, the game.

    Then, Steve, why not call them “amateur journalists”?

  • Anonymous

    Steve writes> To work with the sports analogy, pro football players don’t worry that flag football leagues devalue what they do. When those amateurs watch the game on Sunday, they do it with a deeper understanding of, and interest in, the game.

    Then, Steve, why not call them “amateur journalists”?

    Jay, I notice you have not addressed my point that the helicopter guy is fundamentally a tipster. He offered no new facts or insights beyond seeing helicopters. He saw one thing and told other people about it. What makes him a journalist? Really — what makes him a journalist?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    But nobody’s equating (whether implicitly or explicitly) flag football players with NFL players. And nobody’s saying they should play on the same field. The analogy makes no sense.

    This is the crux of the problem: “Journalist” and “journalism” are words that define a profession, not an activity. Jay Rosen seems, for whatever reason, to believe it’s NOT actually a profession. But it is.

    To make your analogy work, those flag players would have to be called “citizen professional football players,” at which point there would indeed be trouble (though it’s still an imperfect analogy, since nobody would be fooled by the flag players). If we just say a guy tweeted some information, that would be like saying a guy played flag football, and there wouldn’t be a problem.

    Anthar’s story is pretty interesting on its own. I’m not sure why we have to muddy it up with all this “citizen journalism” stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    Oh, bullshit. Geraldo Rivera is a journalist too, and I’m not in his “club,” nor do I want to be. I can go on and on with a long list of people who are, in fact, journalists, but whose “club” I would never join. Take your resentments and your presumptuous suppositions elsewhere — I did nothing to you.

    I’m not trying to keep anyone out of my “club” because my “club” is in no danger of being infiltrated by amateurs. That’s my point – that the whole argument is inane, based on an inane construction of words. If a “citizen journalist” decides to take on the duties, risks, responsibilities, rights and privileges of being a journalist, then he or she is a journalist. But he or she has to take all those things on: the risk of libel suits, of being beaten up, harassed or even killed, of losing one’s career or reputation. The duties to confirm information, to double- and triple-check sources, to not put others at unnecessary risk. Just to make sure people’s names are spelled right. Etc.

    That’s what I did, in fact (with no “training” whatsoever except being screamed at by editors and taken to task by cops, politicians, lawyers and other sources for getting stuff wrong.)

    Many of us here (who actually work or have worked as journalists, which of course leaves some of us out) have had sources who insisted having the honorific “Dr.” placed before their names in news stories, because they had PhD’s in political science or whatever. We’ve had to tell them, sorry, can’t do it. Because to most people, “Dr.” means a particular thing, and if we start applying it willy-nilly, that meaning will be lost. Or at the very least, people will be misled.

    As for the qualifier “citizen,” that’s actually part of the problem. It doesn’t clarify. Quite the opposite. Nobody who argues for it ever answers me when I ask why I’m not a “citizen mechanic” when I change my oil.

    Maybe I’ll start spewing out a lot of nonsensical, buzzword-filled, resentment-laced claptrap from the comfort of my armchair and call myself a “citizen media professor.”

    I’ll even concede, for the sake of argument (as I did in my original piece) that what Athar did was journalism, of a sort. Even with that concession (and it’s a big concession — I see smoke rising a few miles off: journalism!), that STILL doesn’t make him a journalist, “citizen” or otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    he helicopter guy is what we in the business used to call a tipster. Instead of contacting his local paper or TV station, he can now tweet his observation. His tip potentially goes out to many more journalists than it would have in the old days. It’s also a lot easier to do, so he’s a lot more likely to do it. And with his name attached, he gets a bit of credit — unlike in the old days, when a reporter just hung up the phone and pursued the story.

    Bottom line, the helicopter guy is a tipster. New technology has greatly amplified the power and reach of tipsters. Good for him. Good for new technology.

    Journalism, like love, is hard to define. But if the label is attached to anyone who makes an observation about the world, attaches his or her name on that observation, and hits “send,” then new technology makes just about everybody a journalist.

    Maybe that’s Steve’s point. But if you want journalism to be fair, accurate, insightful, well written or well produced, skillful in a way that usually comes with years of experience, then calling billions of observers and tipsters “journalists” further degrades an already degraded term — and degrades the profession.

    Steve and his ilk are doing their little part to degrade what was used to be a noble endeavor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=669985636 Christopher Yasiejko

    [As mentioned by another reader, Poynter has two separate pages for this -- this one and Romenesko's. Here's what I posted on Romenesko's earlier this morning.]

    We are wasting time wrangling about labels. What does it matter what you call a person who reports or simply reveals relevant information?

    The term “citizen journalist,” which is tossed around with abandon, insults me as a journalist. Did I renounce my citizenship when I trained to do this professionally?

    Frankly, the perceived separation by journalists of their craft and their citizenship has been a major factor in our collective disconnect with readers. Debasing the contributions of someone because of a specific degree (or lack thereof) further damages that relationship.

    When a person reports observations, that person by definition is a reporter. It need not suggest a full-time profession. In decades past, the man in question likely would have been a source; today, he can report directly to a limitless audience.

    It’s a hell of a lot more like journalism than is an essay about whether his reporting qualifies as journalism.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Dan,

    I was careful to call him a citizen journalist, not a journalist. The term has a different meaning. You’re right that being a _professional_ journalist is a high-stakes job. Being a citizen journalist carries some of the same responsibilities. So why not do as Andy Carvin suggests below and help them do this work better?

    I don’t think that acknowledging the journalistic elements of this kind of work deprofessionalizes or devalues the practice of journalism. To work with the sports analogy, pro football players don’t worry that flag football leagues devalue what they do. When those amateurs watch the game on Sunday, they do it with a deeper understanding of, and interest in, the game.

    I think most professional journalists wish the public had a better understanding of how they do their jobs. This is one way.

    Steve Myers

  • http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu Jay Rosen

    Steve wrote: “I’m starting to think that professional journalists get more caught up with the ‘citizen journalist’ label than the citizen journalists themselves. Perhaps ‘citizen journalists vs. journalists’ is the new ‘bloggers vs. journalists’ debate.”

    And Dan provides a perfect illustration of what he meant.

    Athar made a contribution that was journalistic. It’s not the same thing that a professional correspondent might do with time, tools, and a connection to a big newsgathering operation, but it’s a contribution nonetheless. Different, but real. And so we designate this contribution with a term, citizen journalist, which isn’t perfect. It annoys the heck out of some people, but it does the job. It says, “this is different from what professional journalists do, but still a kind of journalism, a form of reporting.” We could call it “accidental journalism,” “witness journalism,” or “OMG journalism,” and all would do the trick.

    But that’s not good enough for Dan. He wants–I would say he needs–to read Athar out of the J-club. The club is identity-forming. To allow Athar into it, even momentarily, accidentally, is to insult Dan’s identity. (He thinks.) So let’s be clear: this isn’t about treating words with respect, as Dan suggests. “Citizen journalist,” by qualifying the kind of journalistic contribution Athar made, does respect what words can do. (They can delimit, describe, qualify other words.) No, this is about club membership. Dan’s club.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    “…we need to help them do it better.”

    No we don’t. Or at least, I don’t. I have work to do. And isn’t there enough we need to do to help *ourselves* do it better?

    “I’ll give Athar a break because he’s new to this.”

    I’m sure he appreciates your break, but he has expressed zero interest — indeed, negative interest — in being thought of as a journalist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    All this is fine. But why insist on “citizen journalist?” People were talking to each other and providing journalists with facts on the ground since well before the Internet or Twitter. They weren’t journalists then, either.

    Your interactions with tweeters, where you ask them questions, to help verify and debunk, etc.? That makes them sources. How is that different by virtue of it happening on Twitter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    All this is fine. But why insist on “citizen journalist?” People were talking to each other and providing journalists with facts on the ground since well before the Internet or Twitter. They weren’t journalists then, either.

    Your interactions with tweeters, where you ask them questions, to help verify and debunk, etc.? That makes them sources. How is that different by virtue of it happening on Twitter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    All this is fine. But why insist on “citizen journalist?” People were talking to each other and providing journalists with facts on the ground since well before the Internet or Twitter. They weren’t journalists then, either.

    Your interactions with tweeters, where you ask them questions, to help verify and debunk, etc.? That makes them sources. How is that different by virtue of it happening on Twitter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    All this is fine. But why insist on “citizen journalist?” People were talking to each other and providing journalists with facts on the ground since well before the Internet or Twitter. They weren’t journalists then, either.

    Your interactions with tweeters, where you ask them questions, to help verify and debunk, etc.? That makes them sources. How is that different by virtue of it happening on Twitter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    All this is fine. But why insist on “citizen journalist?” People were talking to each other and providing journalists with facts on the ground since well before the Internet or Twitter. They weren’t journalists then, either.

    Your interactions with tweeters, where you ask them questions, to help verify and debunk, etc.? That makes them sources. How is that different by virtue of it happening on Twitter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    All this is fine. But why insist on “citizen journalist?” People were talking to each other and providing journalists with facts on the ground since well before the Internet or Twitter. They weren’t journalists then, either.

    Your interactions with tweeters, where you ask them questions, to help verify and debunk, etc.? That makes them sources. How is that different by virtue of it happening on Twitter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    (Poynter has two separate pages for this — this one and Romenesko’s. Here’s what I posted on Romenesko’s earlier this morning)…

    Steve, this is more than a bit of a stretch. It’s true that readers are, or at least can be, much more engaged and involved with journalism and journalists thanks to the Internet. And for the most part, that’s great (though in some ways, it’s awful, as a quick glance at any newspaper’s comments section will attest). But if we’re going to call everyone who does things like Athar did a “journalist,” then everybody is a journalist and the word means nothing. When I remove a sliver from my finger, am I a citizen doctor? When I replace my spark plugs or change my oil, am I a citizen mechanic? When I unclog my toilet…. you get the idea.

    Being a journalist comes with all kinds of particular duties, risks, responsibilities, and benefits. If a person wants to take on all of those and actually produce journalism on a sustained basis, I’ll be glad to call that person a journalist, whether they’re working for no money in their proverbial basement or in the newsroom of The New York Times. Until then — simply not a journalist.

    If you want to examine the changing roles and behaviors of news consumers, and the ways journalism is being changed by technology, have at it (though I hope you’re circumspect about it), but there’s no need to start redefining words and twisting reality into knots to make it fit those redefinitions.

    Since we work with words for a living, let’s try to treat them with respect, shall we?

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Mike,

    I did mention that he got some things wrong: “Some of what he relayed was incorrect. He acknowledged some bits were rumor; other times he noted the source.”

    And so do professional journalists when they’re covering breaking news. Many early media reports are wrong. We can talk about how to do it better — like not reporting that Gabrielle Giffords was dead when she wasn’t — but that doesn’t mean those people aren’t doing journalism.

    However, this raises something I wasn’t able to get to in this story: Now that people have the tools to do this kind of work and to self-publish, we need to help them do it better. A key difference between rumor-mongering and real-time journalism is vetting sources and confirming information before passing it along.

    Helping people do this work better is a form of media literacy training. In addition to teaching people how to be better consumers of news, we can teach them what it means to be better citizen journalists. And in the process, they can learn what journalism is and they can learn to distinguish good journalism from bad. That’s what Dan Gillmor talks about in his book “Mediactive.” (See the right column here: http://mediactive.com/ )

    We should look at all of this work critically. I’ll give Athar a break because he’s new to this. But let’s shine the light on all forms of journalism, not just the work done by amateurs.

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.facebook.com/andycarvin Andy Carvin

    I think Sohaib is an excellent example of what I call random acts of journalism. There are countless people out there who use social media as part of their daily lives, and every so often some of them find themselves in the right place at the right time – or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on the situation. Given that they’re already using social media to document their lives and the world around them, it’s natural for them to capture a news event they’re witnessing firsthand.

    The vast, vast majority of these people don’t have professional journalism experience, but nonetheless they recognize there is something going on that they can document. Whether they realize it or not, for that brief period of time they’re involved in the situation, they are indeed acting as a journalist. And once the situation passes, they’ll likely go back to not being a journalist.

    It’s something I’ve seen again and again while covering the mideast via twitter and other social platforms. People find themselves caught in the middle of a newsworthy situation, and they try to capture it. Sometimes they try to adopt the practices they think are journalism – using words like Breaking or Confirmed – but often these pronouncements raise eyebrows among journalists observing from a distance. Sometimes, their biases will show through as well. But that’s okay. They’re not normally journalists. They’re just in a situation where they feel it’s important to capture what’s going on.

    One lesson to be taken from that is that we, as journalists, should probably figure out new ways of teaching the people on our social graph some journalism basics. Often this plays out by just interacting them while they’re gathering the news. When people send me tweets saying “5 protesters shot by police,” I’ll reply to them and ask whatever questions I think can help verify or debunk what’s going on. And that’s the power of interacting with citizen journalists as a story unfolds. While they’re conducting random acts of journalism, we should try to guide them, as best we can, to be the best journalists they can be. Even if it’s fleeting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Franchesco-Teratoma/1318578811 Franchesco Teratoma

    By these standards I am a Citizen Brain Surgeon

  • http://twitter.com/amlikethewind mike fomil

    in all your efforts to write a long story you forgot to mention how much of the story he got wrong. a journalist would have made efforts to seek out the truth, not stay on his couch

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the strong tick-tock Athar’s role, Steve. You make a good case for his journalism citizenship. Given the followup he provided after his initial documentation of the helicopters in the neighborhood, it makes me think I need to update my Seven Steps of Next Step Journalism http://bit.ly/NextStepJ to include curation. Although some citizen journalists check out after the initial documentation, it’s clear that Athar stuck with the story and has earned that 100K Twitter following. Let’s swear the guy into the club!

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