Let's Abolish the Term 'Citizen Journalists'
December 2009

Let's talk about citizen journalists.

There are many people who think they can replace professional visual journalists.

Citizen journalist is a misnomer. There is no such thing. There are citizens and there are journalists. Everybody can be one of the former, but to be called a journalist means that you are a professional. Either you have been schooled in journalism, or you have "paid your dues," rising slowly through the ranks. Journalists are generally not paid well, but they are paid. In our opinion, once you get your third payment for a story you wrote or a photograph you took, or a video clip used on TV, you face a decision whether you want to pursue this as a career. If you decide you do, you are now a fledgling journalist. Those who write or photograph for the sheer joy of doing so are amateurs. It comes from the Latin, "those who love to do." However, they are not professionals.

The Digital Journalist, even though it is purely a Web magazine, has been adhering to the core principles of professional journalism since its start. All 30,000 words in each issue undergo grammar, spelling and fact-checking by our copy editor, Cecilia White, who has worked for The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Economist.

Professional visual journalists cover fires, floods, crime, the legislature and the White House every day. There is either a fire line or police line, or security, or the Secret Service who allow them to pass upon displaying credentials vetted by the departments or agencies concerned. In New York City, for example, working on a committee of the NYPD and NYFD, news organizations every year fill out applications for Working Press cards. A senior visual journalist appointed by the New York Press Photographers Association passes on those applications.

A citizen journalist, an amateur, will always be on the outside of those lines. Imagine the White House throwing open its gates to admit everybody with a camera phone to a presidential event.

You will not see many citizen journalists wandering around the battlefields of Afghanistan. It takes a lot of money to pay for travel, the gear, the armor vests, translators and so on. Why should a military unit "embed" a so-called citizen journalist? Because you think it is a cool idea? Wrong. Every unit takes on a professional photojournalist with some degree of skepticism. Because a false move by someone not schooled in warfare endangers the lives of every man and woman in the unit, the military evaluates that person. That is why the journalists who do this have bona fides from legitimate agencies. Who will the citizen journalist get to accredit him or her?

We advocate abolishing the term "citizen journalist." These people can call themselves "citizen news gatherers," but it is no more appropriate to call them citizen journalists than it would be to sit before a citizen judge or be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon.

Because of declining revenues, newspapers, magazines and TV stations actually think they can get these "volunteers" to replace the professionals. If that is the case, we hope the next step is not to have citizen "editors" start running traditional media, or any media for that matter.

Many of these problems come from the Internet, for years disdained by professional editors. As the business side slashes budgets, these editors and publishers think that they can abandon their print editions, and have bloggers post without covering stories as they happen. Yes, there are a million news blogs, but only one New York Times. But to continue its reputation, the Times must uphold traditional editorial principles. So must we all.

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