The Myth of the Citizen Journalist

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I’ve just run across an interesting post from Neil McIntosh about the phrase “citizen journalist”, often used to describe bloggers and mobloggers who do some form of reporting, and how lacking in meaning it really is.

I very briefly became a citizen journalist of note about three weeks ago, because of a handful of photos I took on the morning of the London bombings. I do feel odd about the whole thing, because the people who spoke to me were trying so hard not to look at the facts. I was lauded in an AP story and Wired as an example of the new breed of citizen journalists. But I’m not a citizen journalist. I’m a professional journalist. I have the NUJ card and the weekly deadlines stress as features editor of a major business magazine to prove it. It’s a natural impulse for me to report on things. It’s what I do for a living. And using a professional to illustrate a story about amateurs still seems odd to me. Sure, what I was doing wasn’t part of my job, but I’m still, inherently, someone who makes a living by communicating things.

I suspect that one of the real reasons I was picked up on around the 7th of July was that I am easy to track down. I blog under my real name, and my work contact details can be easily found on the EG Group website.

However, what people like me were doing that day wasn’t really traditional journalism. We were documenting things around the actual explosions: the mood of people in the city, the way Londoners were reacting, what it felt like to be in the city that day. If you followed Flickr photos and blog posts you could gain a much more palpable sense of how London reacted to the events of that day than any reporter can get by sticking a microphone under the nose of a passer-by and asking if they’re scared.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that Neil is right. The “citizen journalist” term is essentially bogus. What bloggers and mobloggers are doing in situations like that is adding to the breadth of communication around an event, not competing with the mainstream media. The phrase sets up an implied conflict between “citizen journalists” and “journalists”, one that I just don’t think exists.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.