If I swing a hammer on the weekend and build myself a nice birdhouse, am I now a carpenter?

Does using social media make everyone a “citizen journalist?”

Does disinfecting and placing gauze on a gash make me a doctor?

If I am cited for speeding and defend myself in court as is allowed, does that make me a lawyer?

No, no and definitely not.

Which is why I am insanely annoyed by the term “citizen journalists.” Buying a camera at Best Buy and pointing it at people yelling for change does not make anyone a journalist. In fact, “citizen journalists” is the most blood boiling oxymoron I’ve heard in ages. It’s akin to saying “citizen doctor” or “citizen lawyer” or “citizen professor.” In other words, it just doesn’t make sense.

Journalists are trained professionals who hold degrees from universities just like doctors, lawyers, scientists and professors. We take courses in humanities, techniques, history and ethics to name a few. We work in a environment where professional standards and limitations apply as much as they do to a lawyer in a courtroom. And there is no way a citizen can learn to be a journalist without proper education and training any more than I can learn to be a lawyer without attending law school.

Why is this an issue? Because the blurring of lines between journalists and yahoos with cameras is gaining momentum. Police are at the forefront of this issue because they must delineate between the two. For example, amid the cacophony of chants and drums from last week’s Occupy march in LA were a chorus of profanity laden, derogatory remarks aimed at police and others by “citizen journalists” roving with professional looking cameras and audio recorders. Were they actual journalists? Not even close. They were participants who were advocating for a cause and exhibiting behavior that any journalism intern would know is unacceptable. The police and public need to differentiate between the trained professionals and the rest with recording devices. Real photojournalists or journalists will not entice police and then record and publish their aggressive reaction. That is clearly unethical, but ethics is not understood by the untrained “citizen journalist” whose main goal is more likely to involve getting their personal perspective published as opposed to documenting reality.

And the media themselves need to stop using terms like “citizen journalist.” The term is used primarily as a fake authentication of the content that’s coming from a untrained person. As staff reductions continue to rip through newsrooms, more media outlets are relying on non professionals to supply content. The local KCAL 9 uses content from their “Street Teams,” a term that denotes a vision of a group working on behalf of the news organization. But that’s not the truth. In reality, it’s just another citizen with a camera or smartphone that sent in a image or video. KCAL is hardly alone. Major news organization CNN just announced that they will employ fewer photojournalists partially as a result of technology allowing for more “user generated” content. From a CNN memo posted on MediaBistro.com:

  • “We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company.

As more and more “user generated” content is published and more “citizen journalists” participate in news gathering, the distinction between professional journalist and anyone with a camera is blurred further. To make matters worse, city law enforcement such as LAPD, NYPD, SFPD etc, long ago began restricting the credentials issued to professional journalists to only those associated with “full time” news gathering within the city. Anyone not meeting that criteria are denied official press credentials. For years, I was credentialed through the LAPD as a photographer for TIME magazine. But that came to a screeching halt one year when LAPD informed TIME that the magazine and I were not involved in full-time news gathering in the city. I’ve been without a credential ever since.

Would you hire a unlicensed contractor to build your home? Should the courts allow unlicensed lawyers to practice law? Would you allow a doctor without a license to perform surgery on you?

I didn’t think so.

For more images of Occupy LA, please go HERE and search the Keywords for “Occupy”.

Todd Bigelow Photography
6 comments on “If “Citizen Journalist” is Acceptable, Why Not “Citizen Lawyer” or “Citizen Doctor”
  1. Justin Ide says:

    Great post! User generated content is another word for it, but it all it is is bogus!


  2. derek says:

    Ehhhh. I’ve worked at a number of big, mainstream news organizations — as a reporter, not a photographer — and the only relevant “training” I got at an institution of higher learning was a single journalism class at a community college. I just started out as a stringer at a small paper and worked my way up. And I don’t think that’s unusual in this profession at all.

    Down with credentialism! I like that journalism is an open field and anyone can get in. Anyone who is practicing journalism can fairly call themselves a journalist, in my book. Just like anyone who’s writing can call themselves a writer. It’s not like rocket science or medicine or law.

    Regarding your question — only in certain states do housing contractors need to be licensed, so in many instances I might allow indeed allow an “unlicensed” contractor to build my house.

    Would you only buy a photograph from a “licensed photographer?” Only read a book from a “licensed novelist”? Only watch a play featuring “licensed performers”?

    Professional licenses are generally bad things, giving government a means to control and certain workers the ability to stifle competition. (Hairdressers doing away with barbershops, for example, or doctors getting irate that physicians assistants are treating patients with minor illnesses).

    Thankfully, the First Amendment means the government can’t decide who can practice journalism and who can’t.

    I do agree that “citizen journalism” is an annoying term, because I’m a citizen as well.

    • Todd says:

      Although you make a strong argument, you are misconstruing the words and the overall point of the post. “Credentialism”, as you call it, is not the same as an education. I am the first to acknowledge that education does not take place solely between four walls in a classroom. Rather, the best education includes much from life’s experience. However, would you let yourself be operated on by someone without the formal education that a surgeon in the US is required to have? And if you trust someone to build you a home without proper understanding of engineering then you run the serious risk of dangerous structural failing, just as you would run the serious risk of a failed surgery by less-trained doctors. Do you want to drive across a bridge that was built by people who “know” construction but haven’t received any education in complex engineering? No. And the same applies here. I do not preclude anyone from being a “citizen journalist” or a photographer without a “credential”, but my point is there is a profound difference between a citizen with a camera and one who has received a degree in journalism after studying for many years. Yes, the person with the camera or pen can take a photo or write a blog, just like the guy with the hammer can build a wall, but the photo (and the wall) run the risk of failure over time due to the lack of knowledge gained by serious study of the craft. How so with the photo? Simple case scenario: I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of citizen photographers acting extremely unethical by setting up photos, rearranging scenes, baiting people for responses. Those photos are fake, not true representations of what occurred. That is just one example of many. CNN’s quality will go down hill for sure.

    • Dj says:

      Paper fooled by contributor who submits composite photo


  3. derek says:

    But I’ve heard of professional photographers doing unethical things as well, including staging photos and editing things out with Photoshop. And of course reporters have had their own scandals as well. Just having knowledge or a certain level of expertise doesn’t, of course, make you an honest person.

    Are there really that many ethical rules and issues regarding photojournalism, or journalism in general, that you need to study them for years and years? I would think any news organization going to make serious use of user-generated content could come up with an code of ethics that might take up a page or so, and an hour to learn. The NPPA’s code of ethics look pretty good to me. (Not that there aren’t sticky ethical issues in the business, of course, but those usually involve what to publish and are made by the bigwigs).

    Regarding your example — it’s hard to evaluate a bridge, just by looking at it. You need to do a whole inspection. It might be a little simplistic to say you can tell a good photograph, just by looking at it. But … you kinda can.

    • Todd says:

      Yes, there are that many ethical and legal issues. But if you have to ask that question, with all due respect, then it’s obvious that you are unaware of them. Are you well versed in the DMCA? (honestly, don’t go goggle it, read it for 5 minutes and pretend to “know” it because that would get you sued in a millisecond). How thorough is your understanding of Copyright Law? If I quizzed you right now on the legality of photographing at a TSA checkpoint, a Federal building, a courtroom or the inside of a private residence, would you know the legal parameters? To give you one, simple technique scenario, would you understand how to shoot a high key portrait of the CEO of a company when you have 5 minutes to get it done and need to use a 3:1 lighting ratio with a Octabox as the main and a grid on a seamless so the creative director and do a silhouette? How about multimedia, would you understand B-roll and how to avoid the echo sound or wind noise when interviewing a person on the go? My point, again, is simple: Anyone can be a photographer, but the difference between pros and amateurs is the difference between someone who can put a slew of 2×4’s together to form a wall and someone who can engineer a 1 mile wide bridge. CNN and others who lean toward “User Generated Content” see a decline in quality immediately.

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