In My Opinion: Ellen Arnison: Citizen journalism and journalism ethics

EVERYONE has got an opinion about journalists, it seems. Particularly those of the tabloid persuasion.

Back when I started out, I used to tire of defending the work of journalists.

No, they don’t exist simply to harass ordinary people. No, their stories aren’t badly written; they don’t lie and make things up. They aren’t vindictive; nor routinely rake through dustbins or, more recently, hack people.

Newspapers are products that people buy because they want to. Advertisers use them because they are sure readers will cast their eyes over the pages. And, in order for people to buy them, newspapers must consistently be full of stories that inform, entertain, or both. Facts are checked, lawyers consulted and legislation or codes of conduct adhered to.

But you know all of this.

But a change is happening. Thanks to the internet. Now, all the people who thought they knew better about journalism aren’t stopping at bending the ears of hacks. No, they are just going right ahead and putting on a fedora with a Press card tucked in the brim.

On the face of it, teams of on-the-ground ‘citizen journalists’ armed with smart phones to capture unfolding events sounds wonderful. But how do you know the bold citizen journalist is telling the truth? The proper, wider truth, that is, not just the one of their faction?

And you can be damn sure the man or woman in the street hasn’t spent many blissful hours curled up with Scots Law for Journalists. “I’m a citizen journalist, hear me roar.” Only roar at the wrong place and time and they’ll face the wrath of ‘the beak’ and, worse, ensure the very justice they’re after doesn’t happen when a case collapses.

Defamation too. That he read it on the internet, or his pal told him, does not stack up to veritas. Claims, allegations and downright spite can ruin reputations and lives as they spread across the internet like bracken on fire.

As journalists, we have come to a point where sighing and explaining patiently just won’t do. As things stand, the black and white of journalism is more shades of grey than a certain novel.

It used to be easy, if a newpaper said it – even online – that was ‘proper’ and otherwise, then not. But the internet has increasingly become a source for journalists: entire stories are now being constructed around what a few people say on Twitter and the interpretation of someone with an iPhone is being reiterated as fact.

Citizen websites become smarter and the technology makes it all easier, so the line between them and us gets blurrier.

Sitting back and watching it all happen won’t do. We can’t sit in our ever-decreasing newspaper offices waiting for things to resolve themselves. They won’t. Citizen journalists aren’t a danger to our jobs, but they are a threat to the values of journalism – truth, independence, fairness, transparency and professional responsibility.

Let’s find a way to work with citizen journalists, bloggers and Tweeters that makes these values clear to everyone.

How about an accreditation system? Online badges = I’m a professional Scottish journalist/ I’m a trained Scottish citizen journalist.

Free education for the public on the rights and responsibilities of journalism?

We must talk about what we do and what they do – let’s make it clear for everyone.

Those reading the news – real or otherwise – need to understand the bigger picture.

Newsroom staff must really understand how the internet works, understand who is saying what and why. Certainly, like natural selection, on the internet the strong will survive and truth will out eventually, but at what cost?

Let’s get our talented and creative heads together to find a way to make this work, sooner rather than later.

Ellen Arnison worked for the Daily Star of Scotland and the Scottish Daily Mirror. She now works freelance, including writing, subbing, search engine optimisation, brand journalism, ghost blogging, blogging, copywriting and social media. She is the author of Blogging for Happiness: A Guide to Improving Positive Mental Health (and Wealth) from Your Blog.