New Journalists or New Sources?
July 2009

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

The Web has been buzzing of late with news about the news in Iran.

Journalists were not allowed into the country to report on the protests of the election outcome and vote counting. That meant that people throughout the world had to depend on information leaked out of the country via videophones, Facebook and Twitter if they wanted more than the government's viewpoint.

Iranian citizens helped the outside world learn what was going on inside their country. Some of the details were horrifying and people risked their lives to get the word out to the rest of us.

The story deserves worldwide attention as it plays out over time, especially as it relates to human rights.

But, we are reluctant to jump on the bandwagon that refers to the citizens of Iran who told their stories on YouTube and Twitter as journalists, or citizen journalists.

Rather, we contend that they are story sources -- vital sources, but still sources.

We have previously argued in this column that, in the U.S. culture at least, journalism has evolved over time to mean more than just providing words and pictures to an audience.

Professional norms demand that journalists report news accurately, checking and double-checking their information and playing the role of an objective third party who puts that information into some sort of context. A journalist's commitment is to the truth about events, not to some particular outcome or political objective.

The field also demands that its members avoid conflicts of interest, i.e., reporting on events in which they engage as participants. The reason is to avoid a built-in bias.

It is unrealistic to put these kinds of expectations on soldiers in foxholes, victims of hurricanes, or anyone else caught in a life-threatening event.

The fact is that the Iranians in the streets were locked in a life and death struggle for their political, and in some cases, their physical lives.

Citizens in dire straits, certainly.

But not journalists.

The weight-of-evidence in the words and images they have sent to the rest of the world clearly demands that we pay attention to their plight.

But, these stories, technically, are from participant eyewitnesses, not from trained, dispassionate observers.

The real reporting does not happen until journalists sort through the facts, and check their veracity, look for explanations, and dig deeply into the story to ferret out details that put events into a larger perspective for the rest of us.

People on the street in the middle of a struggle for civil and human rights, with bullets and police clubs flying, are not in a position to do that kind of work.

To suggest that they are misses a very important point.

Journalism is a process with accepted norms and practices. Journalists verify claims and eyewitness accounts and put them into an appropriate context before they report them to the general public.

Anyone who takes an interest or gets involved in world affairs deserves that sort of information.

If citizen journalists cannot provide at least that much, then they are citizens with new technologies and the ability to communicate.

But they are not journalists.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.

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