You can't offer citizen journalists money without causing offence

31 January 2006

When a union issues a code of conduct to cover citizen journalists, it is easy to predict the blogosphere's reaction. It does not take long for allegations of protectionism to surface, even when the code asks for citizen journalists to get paid, not offer up legal indemnification and have their material treated properly. That is not to say that the National Union of Journalists code of conduct for what the union calls "witness contributors" does not have its flaws. The term "witness contributors" is just one of them.

For our first off-the-cuff reaction, let's cut to citizen-media advocate Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine. Jarvis's knee-jerk reactions to these things are so common that it's a wonder he hasn't knocked a hole through the desk in front of him by now. His reaction is true to form: it's all about them versus us.

As far as I can tell, the NUJ code seems to boil down to one thing. Media organisations have been paying people for content (aside from letters) for a long time. Just because someone has come up a whizzy new name for a class of contributor doesn't mean they should expect to get nothing in return, their work distorted or landed with a big legal fee. People who do not regard themselves as journalists already get paid for contributions - why should the use of a term end up with them being treated differently?

Conversely, in order to ensure that the media organisations themselves don't get landed with a big legal fee, they should check out wherever possible the authenticity of any contribution. That is my understanding of point two. I can't see how the NUJ will get any media organisations to sign up for the code in the current climate, but you never know - there is always the possibility that a paper or broadcaster is going to come a cropper by using material that has not been checked out, and suddenly discover that something along these lines might have made sense.

The media have already been caught out. It is just that the contributions were not made by people acting under the moniker of "citizen journalist". But fake photographs have been successfully sold or given to the media over many years with predictable results. Piers Morgan wound up running UK hack-trade paper Press Gazette after his former employer, the Daily Mirror, decided to publish fake photos of soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq that came in from an external source. The pics were more likely to have been taken in the UK with the help of some citizen actors.

Is there a reason why a contribution from someone acting under the banner of citizen journalism should receive less scrutiny than anything else that goes into a paper or broadcast? This is, however, where point three goes off the rails. The use of professional journalists as contributors should not necessarily mean that fact-check mode should get switched off. And this point does make it look like little more than protectionism when Darwinism is perhaps a better approach. Point four asks for payment for contributors: if the work is worth the same money, the people doing it are worth the same consideration.

It is at points like this where I could live without the designation of "citizen journalist" or "witness contributors" in this area. Neither term is very helpful for describing what is likely to be a very broad field. It will extend all the way from what we today call freelancers through to people who happened to have snapped a rising star falling paralytic into a gutter outside a night club on their 3Mpixel cameraphone, and managed to dodge the minder. This is presumably where the bit about not encouraging people to put themselves at "unassessed and inappropriate risk" comes in. That's a wide range - where does the citizen end and the professional begin? Would my use of the tag "citizen" be the only thing that matters?

Emily Bell in Media Guardian argues that the code would tie the hands of the media and leave them vulnerable to a slow death from the pecking of upstarts who eschew journalists for Joe Public. Such organisations would be unable to "experiment with 'wikis' or community-built sites". This is where the NUJ should have been a lot clearer. My reading of the NUJ's code is that it is aimed squarely at people doing traditional publishing, not experimenting with community-involvement sites. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the NUJ had that in mind when drafting this. Maybe they should have and made it clear but I think the link made by Bell in this case is an over-ambitious attempt at a reductio ad absurdum.

Neil McIntosh, also of the Guardian, writes:

The trouble with taking this old rule and applying it to the new world is that it's drawn up for journalists publishing newspapers; a situation where a limited number of people act as gatekeepers to the information, where the addition of bias or inaccuracy can be sensibly monitored.

Yep. I'd say the code is indeed aimed at traditional newsrooms. I think that was deliberate. To try to pretend that anyone believes you should police a forum or a comments area in this way is just ludicrous. But it will clearly be marked out as a user area versus one produced by paid specialists.

There are those in the Web 2.0 crowd who argue that only users should produce media. The time for the old priesthood is gone; the media should simply shut up shop and go do something else. In that case, this code is completely irrelevant. However, this game has not played out yet. What is happening now in terms of trends may not be representative of the long term.

I suspect that, for some time to come, people will be paying, or having people pay on their behalf, for access to news that got checked before it went out on the wires. And there will be room for the user-generated content, as there is already. I think that is the heart of the problem for the NUJ: the media who choose to differentiate by trading immediacy for a willingness to check will have their own codes of conduct. Unless forced to by some future government-appointed press monitor, the situation is too fluid for a union's version to make much headway. However, any such individual code might not be a million miles from this one.