Citizen-journalist bloggers in knickers-in-twist shock

13 August 2005

Bloggers writing on citizen journalism have been getting worked up over a letter sent by the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIJ) to the UK magazine Press Gazette and published a little over a week ago. However, the bloggers downstream have been quoting each other rather than looking at the letter itself. And so the comments have been getting steadily less about what the CIJ said but their own prejudices on the issue.

I'm not a CIJ member and have never planned to be: it is not an organisation that, I'm afraid, I have never taken very seriously. I have only ever met one person who claimed to have joined the CIJ and that was about ten years ago. Most UK hacks who are a member of any journalists group join the National Union of Journalists. But that did not stop the writers of the letter raising a couple of good points. Then the game of Chinese whispers started.

Selective quoting - you don't have to be a professional journalist to do it - means that what started out as a criticism of the policies of TV stations and online news outlets got construed as a condemnation of citizen journalists within a few days. It did not take many layers of commenting for the original point to have been lost. Curiously, some seem to have read at least the news story based on the letter in Press Gazette. And still they got confused.

Eric Dauster in his Blogola claimed: "The UK Press Gazette received a letter from the CIoJ calling the use of pictures following the London bombings as 'totally unacceptable' and 'bordering on the irresponsible'." Not quite. The CIJ correspondents actually said: "The use in newspapers, and on television, of pictures by amateur photographers who have been at the scene of a major news story has always been acceptable." That would imply that the CIJ had no problem with people sending cameraphone snaps of the aftermath of the bombings.

What the CIJ people were complaining about were the exhortations by programmes such as ITV's London Tonight to "go out and get news pictures" so that viewers could "feel a part of the exciting world of newsgathering". The writers asked: "What happens if a viewer is seriously injured while taking part? Will ITV be there to pick up the pieces and pay the medical bills?" The short answer is no, they won't. The NUJ for its part has been running campaigns to get newspapers to take better care of freelancers working in war zones who often get left on their own when something goes wrong. There are dangers for people taking photographs at home. The police often demand pictures of violent demonstrations to identify suspects. The result has been that freelance and staff photographers have been the targets of violence themselves at demonstrations. Somebody just popping along to an anti-globalisation demo with the expectation of being a citizen journalist for the day might find that out the hard way if it turns nasty. Getting roughed up by a bodyguard or bouncer might be the only reward some wannabe celeb snapper might get.

The issue of reward was actually the main thrust of the letter, not danger. The CIJ went on to criticise the outrageous rights grabs that broadcasters in particular tried to use, "playing upon the lack of knowledge of copyright law by the average mobile-phone snapper". All of the organisations cited said they not only wanted to use the pics for free, but that they expected syndication rights as well. CNN's demands were particularly egregious, according to the CIJ:

"You agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless CNN, its parent and affiliated companies… from all liabilities or losses, including, without limitation, reasonable attorney's fees."

Yes, that's right. If anybody who objects to the use of the picture for news purposes by CNN decides to sue, you get to pay. And what do you receive for your rap-rod snap in exchange for the right to fork over thousands in lawyer fees to CNN? Zip. Nada. Zilch.

However, that little nicety was missed by a number of bloggers. Monique Van Duseldorp writing for Poynter Online on citizen journalis, claimed the CIJ "was condemning the trend and all those promoting it". Bizarrely, she said the letter was sent in response to the pictures taken of the arrest of two alleged bombers by a member of the public and sold for a cool £65 000 to two news outlets. The letter was published on the 4th August, which was several days after the arrests, but it made no mention of the arrest pictures. However, Press Gazette is a weekly and the letter could have arrived some days before it was published.

As the photographer of the two guys on a Stockwell balcony had been paid for handsomely, I find it unlikely that the CIJ writers had those pictures in mind when penning the letter. Van Dusseldorp pointed to two news stories in Press Gazette but not the letter itself. To be fair one story cited the arrest pictures as marking a watershed in citizen journalism and then mentioned the letter, but the two were not directly linked in the copy.

Jeff Jarvis on BuzzMachine seized on Van Dusseldorp's comments, claiming the CIJ had suffered a "hissy fit" and that its comments were "journalistically offensive". By this time, the link to pictures had died. Jarvis was commenting on citizen news-gathering in general, implying that the CIJ's objections over dangers and payment were patronising. "Well, we're all big boys and girls and we can make those decisions." That's true enough, or at least it should be. But in some circumstances, standing and taking a picture paints a big target on your back. Many experienced news photographers have had enough cameras broken to understand where the risks lie.

However, after Jarvis, there was another layer of indirection. Citizen journalism advocate Dan Gilmor spared no more than two lines on the subject:

"Jeff Jarvis points out the absurdity of a journalists' group urging news orgs not to ask for citizen's input on news events. Ridiculous."

Yes Dan, you're right. It's ridiculous. It is indeed tough to write a news story if you don't have anyone to tell you what happened. If that was what the letter said, then it would be a great comment. However, it is completely irrelevant to the CIJ's original points. Reading the letter itself might have been a good start to that post.

That is not to say that all bloggers simply seized upon each others' words in a flurry of trackbacks without actually bothering to check the source. To his credit, Dick O'Brien clearly did read the letter and criticised Jarvis for his knee-jerk reaction on the Back Seat Drivers blog.

People with cameraphones are clearly getting wise to the free-pic grab. A lot of people have remarked on the move to set up Scoopt, as a dedicated citizen journalist's picture agency. It is a fine idea as it makes it easier for people to get pictures syndicated. But budding photojournalists should be aware that a number of the traditional picture agencies are not averse to using new people, as long as their pictures are good.

It is not as if using amateur pictures, and paying for them, is anything new. Newspapers and broadcasters have been paying for pictures - including grainy, faked-up UFO shots - for years. Scoopt's own front page shows footage from the Concorde crash in Paris from five years ago. The only change is in the readier availability of tiny, half-decent cameras that happen to be embedded in phones. This whole area will settle down quite quickly as the idea of fair value for exclusive pics comes back. However, don't be surpised to hear stories of celebs' bodyguards confiscating cameraphones at private parties; people might even have to start leaving them at the door in exclusive clubs.

1 Comment

Please note that (according to the Press Gazette) the Chartered Institute of Journalists highlighted ITV, CNN and the BBC as instigating a new trend in broadcasting that pushes the public to "go out and get" pictures of breaking news. ITV had shown such pictures in the same week this letter was published, so the link to CIJ's comments is of course anything but bizarre.

And in my write up, I critized the idea that the public is victimised the moment it sends in pictures for free, but I also AGREED with the CIJ on the legal issues. Just for the record.