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Summary:

Is the man who live-tweeted the bin Laden attack a “citizen journalist?” Some argue that he is not, but the reality is that what we call journalism is being unbundled into its component parts, and anyone can now perform some or all of those functions.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what the U.S. military strike on Osama bin Laden’s compound says about the state of the media today, and the latest debate is whether Sohaib Athar — the Pakistani resident who live-tweeted the raid — is a journalist or not. SF Weekly blogger Dan Mitchell is pretty convinced that he is not, but there are some pretty powerful arguments to be made that he is — that Athar represents a new kind of quasi-journalist, or what some call a “citizen journalist.” The bottom line is that journalism as we know it has been unbundled into its component parts, and virtually anyone has the ability to perform some or all of those functions now. We are still grappling with what that means, but it’s happening.

Mitchell seems particularly incensed that Steve Myers from the Poynter Institute refers to Athar — a computer programmer living in Abbottabad, whose Twitter handle is @ReallyVirtual — as a citizen journalist. Mitchell (whose bio notes he has worked for “nearly every media organization in the world” including Fortune, The New York Times and National Public Radio) says that “wondering on Twitter why there are helicopters flying around your neighborhood isn’t journalism.”

That much is true, otherwise virtually everyone who posts something to Twitter would be a de facto journalist — and not even the most utopian social-media advocate would argue that, I don’t think. But as Steve Myers points out in an exhaustively well-researched response to Mitchell at the Poynter website, there are a number of very good reasons for describing Athar as a journalist, and for describing what he did as journalism. Because Athar did far more than just idly wonder what those noises were near his house, and he did far more than just describe them. As Myers notes, he also:

  • Answered questions from others seeking information.
  • Acted as a conduit for information, sharing what he knew as he learned it.
  • Sought reports from news sources and shared them.
  • Traded what he had heard with others to figure out what was going on.
  • Analyzed what was happening.

In many ways, what Athar did was pretty much the same thing that NPR digital strategist and prolific Twitter user Andy Carvin has been doing in reporting on the protests and revolutions in Egypt and Libya — a process that also involves curating other people’s tweets, reporting from sources, verifying and authenticating information, and so on. Although Athar may only have done it once, and the depth of his reporting isn’t even in the same category, what he did is functionally identical. It’s not that different from what freelance “stringers” for wire services used to do, except they can now publish themselves (Athar has since posted video of the bin Laden compound on fire).

In a comment on the Poynter piece, Carvin calls what Athar did “random acts of journalism,” which is as good a phrase as any. And Jeff Sonderman, the managing editor of Washington local-news site TBD.com notes in a comment that journalism isn’t actually even a profession per se, since those who practice it don’t have to be approved by any kind of official body, or show that they have any kind of specific training from an accredited institution; they just do it. That’s part of what makes it so difficult to define.

Did Athar have the resources at hand that Wolf Blitzer on CNN had, to analyze and interpret the attack, or the 3-D virtual displays to replay the raid, or the sources at the White House to describe the Navy SEALs who carried it out? Obviously not. But as a resident of the area, he had plenty of useful information about that part of Pakistan — enough to correct some of the errors that many other traditional journalists and media sources were reporting, as Myers points out in his piece.

Whatever you want to call it, collecting and reporting information, putting it in context and then distributing that to others is journalism, whether Athar went to Columbia or not.

Thanks to Twitter and the power of the network, the Pakistani IT consultant was a part of the new ecosystem of news, just as Janis Krums was when he posted a photo of Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson , and just as protesters in Tahrir Square have been as they report on events there. Is that all journalism consists of? Of course not. All those facts and reports need to be understood in context, and made part of a larger picture. Even Athar didn’t know that what he was reporting was connected to Osama bin Laden (although he started to suspect when he heard about Obama’s speech).

But the more that people like Dan Mitchell try to define the concept of journalism narrowly enough to exclude people like Athar, the more they reduce the actual practice of journalism. If you make the argument that what the Pakistani IT consultant did was simply “reporting” but not actual journalism, then you instantly discredit all the battlefield and foreign reporting that consists of virtually the exact same kind of behavior.

Why don’t journalists want to admit that others can now perform many of the same functions they do, given these new tools? Because that means that anyone with a Twitter account or a blog is competition. But that is the reality — and journalists of all kinds had better start getting used to the idea, instead of trying to define their way out of it.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and Yan Arief

  1. The two clowns that posted the false MLK quote to twitter — were they “journalists”? Of course not.

    Sure, some things posted to twitter can be considered journalism, as was the case with the OBL tweeter. But posting a tweet in and of itself does not make one a journalist. ANYBODY can post ANYTHING on twitter, even if it’s false.

    There is ZERO accountability on twitter if you’re wrong, which is why social media like Facebook & twitter will never entirely replace the need for responsible journalists.

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    1. IBegToDiffer Thursday, May 5, 2011

      I think it’s arguable that people who post on social media are held accountable via social means for their words far more than could ever be happen in traditional print and broadcast media. I could respond to your comment here if had been broadcast or printed.

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  2. Do we have to have this argument again every time something happens that lights up the social media sphere? Really?

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  3. I’m in the NOT a journalist camp.

    We’ve always had sources & eye witnesses but in the past a reporter was shoving a microphone in their face, or talking to one via phone, asking for their story. We’ve never called them journalists.

    Now everyone has tech and can give their eye witness account in real time, no waiting for the reporter on scene. So, to me, they’re just technology enabled “sources” or “eye witnesses”. They aren’t reporters or journalists unless you want to twist everything into a pretzel as some so-called “deep-thinkers” are prone to do.

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    1. Some of the people in Athar’s position are definitely sources or eyewitnesses, who tell their stories to others — but some are effectively reporters, documenting and verifying and distributing news. That’s a journalist in my definition.

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      1. Then we’ve always had them – Everyone from the person calling in a weather report to every caller to a radio talk show, even if they’re editorializing. And you can, if you want, define almost anything as something else.

        Sorry but in my opinion, this is all just a lot of mental masturbation try to fit stuff in with the buzz words of the day – crowd-sourcing, hyper-local, and on, and on, and on.

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      2. Doesn’t this go back to some trying to declare Wikileaks (and Julian) journalism rather than a “source” to protectivly drape in a journalist shield?

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  4. Mathew thanks for raising this question.

    I had been wondering to myself in the last year .. indeed what does twittering make you? a broad gauge gossip? A grafiti artist? An internet vandal? A good but self-promoting samaritan?

    and does posting videos on you tube makes you a short film director?

    TxPatriot is spot on. Accountability is key. Dedication to the task over a period of time is a defining factor.

    What Athar did was use available tools in a responsible manner to inform others people of what was going on, in much the same sense that someone might use webmd to look up an ailment and its treatment either before or after consulting a doctor. It does not make one a doctor even if one had, say a mobile phone based ultra sound device, and one used it to “figure out what was going on” in ones body or “analyze” or “trade information”. Does it?

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    1. If I changed the oil & filter in my car once, am I (or was I) a citizen/amateur mechanic?
      If I took some pics at a reunion once and one got published in the local paper, am I (or was I) a citizen/amateur photo journalist?
      ——
      Could go on forever but the whole argument/discussion sounds pretty ridiculous when applied to other activities/professions (ooops, even profession seems to be in contention as journalists aren’t licensed so maybe that needs to be occupation)

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      1. Exactly – lurking under the surface is an implicit argument that we don’t need to a paid, professional, job for journalists, but it will/should be replaced by unpaid masses doing it for the attention or civic attention. This argument is not made and examined directly, because then weaknesses and agendas would be obvious. So it is made in terms of “citizen-” (read “volunteer”) indirection. The tricks is using various phrasing to puff-up weak claims to make them sounds like strong claims, but leaving a way to retreat when called on this.

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  5. ChooseyBeggar Thursday, May 5, 2011

    twitter is a microblog, ergo reporting etc. on twitter is microjournalism :-¡

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    1. Micro-journalism — I like that :-)

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      1. “random acts of micro reportage” would that be a good compromise to end the debate?

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      2. I’m not sure it would Avinash as it doesn’t include the all important word “journalist”. I’m convinced the underlying agenda here is to get more people – from Julian Assange to Tweeters in oppressed countries, to bloggers, etc – into the journalist class to protect them using journalist shield laws. They’re trying to get anyone that performs anything similar (no matter how brief or random) to what journalists do, declared journalists.

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  6. Sohaib Athar, the blogger conveniently living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, just around the bend of the US SEALS raid on the Mansion Osama Bin Laden hid was a chance of a lifetime. He was just curious of choppers hovering over neighborhood apparently not on watch list as insurgent haven, it being just a stone-throw away from a premier elite military school minting likely army officers man and lead the Pakistani military, future army officers. Curiosity as far as would concern me really is just about why journalism come in firstly. When individuals become curious, the likely scenario to follow would certainly to fill-in if it is a void provide some measure of answers. Well, it follows that such undertaking may be admissibly satisfactory, or may come in bland, lifeless or even a bit boring.

    How would journalism be understood, will it be something like CNN or Anderson Cooper or perhaps Maria Ressa, Christiane Amanpour maybe? Me I’d rather think that the internet and other similar information technology platforms may have sort of chipped in the fray to have made journalism even more exciting i.e. the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences and now Libya and Syria, their blogger corners are I think the most sought after, I think they’re another level of journalism that are given voluntary free of charge, and media bigwigs are jumping with glee! How much do you think Christiane Amanpour gets as a journalist? No idea.

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  7. Interesting topic. I guess posting on Twitter does not officially make you a journalist. But it depends on the situation. In this case, Athar would be considered a journalist. Since the information he posted on Twitter were facts, not to mention LIVE, he immediately grabbed everyone’s attention and delivered news that everyone wanted to know about.

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    1. They were observations that became factual. Big difference.

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  8. Of course Athar isn’t a journalist, but I love the “random acts of journalism” label. It’s the best description of so-called citizen journalism I’ve heard. Let’s run with that.

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  9. Platforms like Twitter help to make everyone publishers. But journalists are people who analyse and report news, often from a variety of sources, as a profession.

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  10. No, it makes you a bystander.

    If you’re walking around, asking the players meaningful questions, and putting some analysis around what’s commonly observable, you’re approaching journalism.

    Saying people who post to Twitter can compete with journalists is like saying someone who buys a GoDaddy domain and puts up a WordPress blog can compete with a professional web designer.

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  11. Citizen journalism is a dangerous term right off the bat because it is not accurate. As I’ve taught folks in my role as the social media trainer for the Society of Professional Journalists and numerous other business organizations, a journalist requires training and understanding of the news business.

    What we’re witnessing – semantically – is citizen REPORTING. It’s the same thing you’d get if you strapped a flip cam to a cat or pulled in the feed from a traffic camera. Content without trained analysis.

    Would you trust your teeth to a citizen dentist; your toilet repair to a citizen plumber; your finances to a citizen investment advisor?

    Guess not. I believe that news gathering and reporting can be helped by the prevalence of new media tools and the folks – CITIZEN REPORTERS – who use them. I don’t think the use of these tools in any way supplants the need for the trained legions of journalists who can give us balanced perspective of that news.

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    1. “Content without trained analysis”
      I’m not sure that defines a journalist as I see things in the MSM that are basically wrong all the time – everywhere from Fox to the New York Times. In fact, for the things I’m fairly well versed in, journalists get their facts wrong all the time.

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      1. “Journalists get their facts wrong all the time”

        Would that be totally unlike doctors, lawyers, politicians, economists and every other knowledge-based job on the face of the planet?

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      2. No Bill it wouldn’t as everyone makes mistakes but Jeff was making the point that trained analysis (which to me inferred/meant – among other things – accuracy) was a journalist distinction from others reporting, observing or whatever.

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      3. I was a journalist and senior-level editor in the Army not too long ago. It’s not just about “content without trained analysis,” PXL. It’s about general knowledge and knowing what your doing all around. “Citizen Reporters” do not know how to use a style manual properly or even which one to use. Do you know which is the correct style manual to use for news reporting? If so, please respond with the correct answer. And have the balls to do so without asking someone else for the correct answer.

        “Citizen Reporters” rarely understand the difference between libel and slander, and they even more rarely know how to conduct themselves as investigative reporters to uncover the details about a story that others don’t want told and still be able to defend themselves, their editor and their publisher against a libel suit. Do you know how to do that, PXL? I do. Do you know why? Because I’ve been trained. Because I paid $65,000.00 to get a degree, and then I went on got a little bit more experience beyond that degree.

        You know, PXL, when I’m browsing the internet now, and I come across a new ezine published by one of these generic groups of “citizen reporters” and I see a copyright disclaimer that reads: “Copyright notice. None of the photography or artwork in this magazine belongs to this magazine. If we used any of your photography or artwork and you did not want us to do so, you must notify us so that we can remove your photography or artwork from our magazine.” I feel completely justified in my belief that I DO NOT have to “get used to this.” Absolutely not.

        On the contrary, PXL, I believe it’s high time professional journalists find a way to take back the profession and clean up the mess that others have made.

        Just for the record, Fox and MSNBC are not news, they are entertainment delivered in a news format much the same way that WWE is entertainment delivered in a wrestling format. If you want to find real news in the US these days, you’re going to have to look on NPR. The slipping that you’ve seen in our newspapers is mostly a result of economic pressures forcing them to cut staff to the bare bones, and in many cases eliminate them entirely contracting the story writing assignments to offices in India, believe it or not, and relying entirely on editors to clean up that mess. Aside from NPR, you can look for channels that carry BBC and if you can get Al Jazeera English on your internet, it’s a pretty good world news source.

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      4. PXL, Looking over some of your other comments again, I realize that we’re in the same camp. Actually, it appears that we are all in this string in the same camp. Regardless, I hope my other post goes through because I like the points I made in it. :-)

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      5. Yes, I am in the opposing camp :-)
        ———-
        Off the top of my head I’ll guess it’s the Chicago Style Manual/Guide – Do I win?

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  12. No. Just like picking my nose doesn’t make me a doctor.

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  13. I would say the difference is semantic as well as professional. Someone who happens upon news and reports it on a professional level like this but who has not been formally trained to do so, I would call a reporter as they are reporting the news. On the other hand, someone who went to school or otherwise trained (perhaps as an understudy) specifically to become a journalist and then who traveled on location specifically to report on the news perhaps placing themselves in harms way when they would not have otherwise been in harms way, I would call that person a professional a journalist. That’s the difference.

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  14. I like the term, “random acts of journalism,” but I don’t think that posting a Twitter automatically qualifies you as a journalist. Sohaib Athar happened to be in the right place in the right time and tweeted what he saw, which really doesn’t qualify him as a journalist, or as someone that people would regularly trust to give them accurate information.

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