If the reporting at recent protests demonstrated anything, it’s that in a world of citizen journalists, the news will be anarchic, inconsistent and unreliable.
Anyone who can string together 280 characters for a tweet or shoot a shaky cellphone video can pretend to be a reporter.
Most citizen journalists are passionate participants in the thing they cover, be it racial justice or high school sports. That almost always leaves them hopelessly biased. Everything filters through their passion: Either the peaceful protesters stand nobly against the vicious police; or the antifa rioters are poised to burn down an entire city. Some citizen journalists don’t investigate. They just set up a livestream from an apartment window.
Just because the reporting is biased doesn’t mean it lacks value. Anyone who wanted to know what was happening on the streets during protests and in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone did well to follow several citizen journalists on Twitter who told the story as it happened.
But social-media reports can augment serious journalism, not replace it. In a study released Thursday, the Pew Research Center found that people who rely on social media for news wind up less knowledgeable about politics and pandemics.
Local newspapers and other traditional media outlets remain the best option for reliable reporting. Their reporters are trained. They follow professional standards. They have editors who make sure facts are verified and quotes are accurate. They abide by journalistic ethics. That system fails sometimes, but when professional journalists make a mistake, they correct it. That is the most basic compact between the press and the public.
Drawing a bright line between reporters and activists is difficult. The Seattle Police Department tries when it issues media credentials to reporters “who are directly employed by agencies of print, television, radio and electronic media.”
Washington’s shield law, which protects journalists from compelled disclosure of unpublished images, sources, notes and other material, defines covered news media as newspapers, book publishers, television networks and the like. It also covers their employees who are “engaged in bona fide news gathering for such entity.”
While “bona fide news gathering” might be a little vague, it’s not even the squishiest part of the law. The covered organizations also include “any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means.” That probably doesn’t include someone who puts out a handful of newsy tweets whenever there’s a protest and nothing but cat videos otherwise. The gap between that and The Seattle Times is wide and very gray.
The Seattle Times and four television stations are in a legal dispute with SPD focused on the shield law and protests.
Nothing stops activists from slapping the word “Press” on their sleeves. One protester in Portland said he did so to protect himself from being shot by federal officers. He wasn’t alone, according to the Portland Police Bureau. “PPB has seen a number of people purporting to be ‘media’ or ‘press’ who are not in recent weeks. This is concerning and takes away from legitimate media efforts,” the city’s police warned.
On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge to lift a restraining order protecting journalists. Federal lawyers described multiple incidents in Portland of people wearing press badges who engaged in violence and committed other crimes. Under the restraining order, when law enforcement orders crowds to disperse, journalists may remain. Under those circumstances, someone falsely wearing a press badge could become a barrier between cops and protesters or, even more dangerous, get behind police lines.
In both Portland and in Seattle, officers have arrested members of the media amid the confusion. If they can’t be sure who is actually a reporter, they figure it out later.
Fake reporters undermine trust. News consumers must work hard to figure out which news reports are reliable. Police don’t know which press members are genuine. And people in the midst of newsworthy events don’t know whether to trust a reporter who asks for an interview. Imagine if the practice swung the other way and law enforcement went undercover as press to gather information about protesters. The outcry, I hope, would be deafening.
A better term than “citizen journalist” might be “amateur journalist.” Just as most people wouldn’t go to a citizen doctor for medical help or trust a citizen engineer to design a bridge, they should approach citizen journalism with great skepticism. If amateur journalism is all that survives someday, democracy and a civil society will be in a world of hurt.
For the past few weeks, I’ve written about the alternatives to locally owned, community-focused news organizations. Amateur journalists, partisan websites masquerading as news and corporatized national chains all would be poor replacements for the free press that the nation’s founders protected in the First Amendment.
Communities that prize vigorous public discussions grounded in accurate, fair reporting must figure out how to save them. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some ways to do just that.