The NUJ's impressively populous London Freelance branch invited me to its discussion on citizen journalism tonight (14/11/05).

I confess I was a little wary; there is significant concern among freelancers that they are losing work because of the proliferation of "user-generated content" (UGC). So I felt it necessary to say I am really an observer of the phenomenon - rather than someone with a professional interest - just to avoid being lynched...

I wanted to try to explain exactly what that rather unsatisfactory phrase "citizen journalism" has come to mean and how it works in practice, and I also wanted to find out if anyone had direct experience of losing work as a result of it.

There appears to be only anecdotal evidence of sports photographers losing work on a local paper in the north of England (if anyone has any hard evidence, please get in touch).

So far, in my experience, it appears that major news sites are using UGC to supplement rather than replace professional content. Generally they want to protect their brand, and want quality images with their lead stories - except in the case of events like the London bombings when the immediacy and insight of eyewitness footage captures something essential to the story.

But then citizen journalism is a rather misleading term that covers a multitude of sins.

As well as video and photo footage, UGC includes comments and discussion forums, and the wider forms of 'participatory journalism' such as blogs and community news sites.

'Citizen witnesses' is another term that was mooted recently but I think that label is too specific and sounds like a rather pompous dismissal of the public's ability to produce 'journalism', which in the UK at least is not an elite 'closed shop' profession like medicine or law.

One could argue that everyone has a right to express an opinion and it's hugely significant that so many people are prepared to devote their own time and energy for free to contribute to a debate and a community.

At a time when so many people feel politically isolated that has to be a positive phenomenon, and this is why I object to the idea of offering financial incentive to citizen journalists. It goes against the spirit of the collaborative web.

Why is the news industry so interested?

A few eyebrows were raised when Robin Brownsell of YouView said that newspapers had been quick to adopt his company's mobile-to-website photo publishing technology. He predicted that picture editors will increasingly use photographs taken by the public as picture quality and broadband speeds improve.

Donnacha DeLong, a member of the NUJ's new media council and editor of, said he felt that some newspaper companies will exploit people and content in any possible way - especially those with a history of paying journalists low rates.

"They have a serious lack of respect for journalism and journalists' material. If they can get away with paying very little then they will surely be interested in getting content for free," he said.

One freelancer, to my astonishment, appeared to believe that readers were paid for submitting comments to a web site.

Firstly, what kind of brown-nosing drivel would people produce if their incentive was financial - rather than wanting to contributing to a debate? Secondly - no-one would expect to be paid if their letter was published in newspaper, surely?

We were Scoopt-less

Rather disappointingly, both Scoopt and the BBC pulled out of the debate for various reasons. They would have given an insight into what is actually involved and in particular the details behind the rights agreements that the public are asked to agree to when submitting material.

Scoopt managing director Kyle MacRae sent a statement detailing the agency's licence terms.

"Our lawyers advised an all-out rights grab... getting people to assign copyright to Scoopt at the point of submission, and a couple of traditional picture agencies said they would insist on a perpetual exclusive licence.

"I wasn't happy with either scenario. But then I wasn't happy with the idea that we could spend a great deal of effort marketing a picture, possibly for no immediate sale, only to see the picture suddenly become valuable a year down the line, at which point the member withdraws it from Scoopt and sells it direct to the press or to another agency."

The current arrangement - a 90-day exclusive licence and then a perpetual non-exclusive licence - is a compromise, he said.

Even though not one of Scoopt's 3,200 members has queried the current set up, Mr MacRae has invited comments on one alternative - to allow members to opt-out of the non-exclusive licence after three or six months.

The average member of the public is probably not familiar with the intricacies of copyright law and there is probably a job to be done to educate them. A good place to start would be this superb guide written by the London Freelance branch.

On the issue of personal safety, Mr MacRae said Scoopt would never encourage the public to put themselves in danger because "our model is passive news gathering".

But if you are paying someone for photographs, that is very different - and certainly not a passive one...

• The NUJ has taken all these issues into account in composing its own code of practice for citizen journalists, due to be published in December. See Union drafts guide for citizen journalists.


From Fiona Brownsell, 12:52 16 November 2005

It did occur to me that professional journalists are missing a trick. Many of them have dedicated readers who seek out their articles. It isn’t too far a stretch to see that the journalists themselves could use the 'single seat' version of our software to encourage their own readers to send them photos of stories that they would like the journalists to cover.

Then instead of this trend being a threat, it could become a new source of information and strengthen the relationship that already exists between the much maligned citizen journalist (or witness or whatever) and the professional journalist.

Each and every one of us in business, and that includes freelance journalists, need to look for the opportunities generated by societal changes, as well as guarding against the threats.

Fiona Brownsell - CEO, Youview

From Helen Argyros-Farrell, 13.57 16 November 2005

I just wanted to add a comment, rather than pose a question, with regards to how journalism is not perceived as a profession in the same way that medicine and law is.

I was recently talking to an Italian journalist who informed me that, in Italy, journalists are extremely well respected. Indeed, journalism, he said, is considered one of the most regarded professions in Italy. When I asked him why this was the case, he said that in Italy, ALL journalists are required BY LAW to take a series of gruelling exams to cover a breadth of subjects from politics to law, in order to maintain the high standard of journalistic reporting.

I have never checked this fact, but I did wonder whether the UK press should consider something similar? Perhaps an NCTJ qualification in newspaper journalism needs to be stepped up a gear?

Helen Argyros-Farrell - Assistant editor, FP&FEJ

From Neil Michael, 11.31 17 November 2005

You're either a journalist or you're not. To me, Citizen Journalism seems to imply that journalists themselves are not citizens. It was interesting that the inspiration for a lot of the current crop of online so-called Citizen Journalist photosites - the man who made £70,000 from his now famous pictures of the arrest in London of two terror suspects - doesn't describe himself as a citizen journalist and indeed appears uneasy with the description. At the end of the day - and I suspect he would agree - he was just a member of the public who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His photos don't make him a photojournalist, nor do they make him a journalist.

Anyone can call themselves a journalist if they write articles but I think there really is a world of difference between a professional journalist who is bound in one way or another to ethical considerations, as well as codes of conduct and good practice and the restrictions imposed on reporting by the terms - in England at least - of the various acts, such as the libel laws, contempt of court etc.

It's not so much that I'm suspicious about so-called citizen journalists. It's just that I just wonder what such a catch-all description actually means? I worked in regional papers before I went onto the nationals and for years was dealing with copy sent in by our readers. Indeed, most local newspapers - and to a lesser extent the nationals - use stories and pictures provided by people who are in effect readers who want to see stories they are interested in being published in their local paper. It gives them a sense of being part of their local paper and if anything, their input has always and will always be - a very valuable part of local newspapers.

The role of readers on national titles diminishes somewhat as the agendas are different and the news is less local and few newsdesks have the time or the inclination to sift through the same level of reader input. Instead, they cherry pick the best local stories - or rather local news agencies cherry pick on their behalf, and so it goes on.

With the increased proliferation of the internet, ordinary people are increasingly becoming far more savvy about getting their views and stories across but I think it's still just tip of the iceberg stuff and the vast majority of ordinary people still rely on and contribute to their local newspaper. They don't call themselves citizen journalists. At best, they call themselves local correspondents - which is what they are.

Over the last few years I've seen more and more people jumping up and calling themselves citizen journalists and it completely throws me.

There is a world of difference between a professional journalist - AND a member of the public who may be an architect or a road sweeper who has an active and healthy interest in news.

I don't mean to appear even remotely jumped up about my own profession. I am a former car washer with no degree or educational qualifications beyond secondary school results and NCTJ certs in law and local government. But with the title of journalist comes a shed load of issues, not least being accuracy, a working knowledge of the law where it impacts on anything I write and a responsibility to adhere to or at least to be aware of issues about privacy, ethics and good practice.

I'm sick and tired of being on jobs and bumping into people who pitch up saying they are either journalists or professional photographers and they clearly have little or no regard for some of the more subtle issues that relate to what they are doing. My concerns extend to anything from getting the facts right to not putting other people - let alone one's own - lives in danger.

There is also the issue of political, racial and social bias as much as there is the reality of news gathering as opposed to the sort of rose-tinted view that some people can have about being a 'journalist'.

I think a sort of X-Factor journalism is starting to creep in - where people think they can just say they are one thing without actually having either experience or qualifications. Not being part of a professional body does not preclude someone from being a professional but I do think a lot of people - but definitely not all - who call themselves 'citizen journalists' or who seek to exploit so-called citizen journalists need to get themselves a reality check.

It's telling in many ways that while professional journalists do indeed end up dead in war zones doing what they do - I think that if you look at the figures, it is people with little or no experience who are in the majority of those who die in war zones, get arrested or in some way come a cropper.

There are very good and valid reasons why traditional journalists like myself bleat on about - and should continue to bleat on about  -  the merits of  experience and  the validity of  'doing the basics'. 

I think the term 'Citizen Journalist' implies a qualification to do a job above and beyond what your average hard-working hack has to encounter on a daily - and often boring - basis. To me, CJ-ism is (almost) all about the sexy stuff, short cuts and denial and I do struggle with it as a job definition.

The managing editor of Sky News recently made a very valid point (that was mocked by the so-called citizen journalists in the audience) about citizen plastic surgeons...

If people who call themselves Citizen Journalists can start consistently a) breaking national and international stories and b) do things that set agendas, then I'd be less sceptical about them and would be more inclined to embrace them.

The whole debate about the US army's appalling use of  the so-called 'shake and bake' bomb white phosphorus has been utterly hijacked by some extraordinarily irresponsible reporting by bloggers and so-called citizen journalists. This is such a shame because the facts speak for themselves and to cloud them with the level of distortion that has gone on off the back of  bloggers keen to get in on  the act  gives the whole medium and concept of so-called citizen journalism a bad name.

As to the knee-jerk response about well, what about the distortion of facts by the mainstream media? - I think that's just missing the point.

If so-called citizen journalists want to be taken seriously then they need to go out and break news stories that stand up to scrutiny alongside the more traditional approach to news/snooze.

From Jemima Kiss, 19.09 17 November 2005

I understand your concerns about the CJ thing, but in reality amateur journalism, fanzines etc have always been around, it's just that the web has made it so much easier, cheaper and more extensive than before.

I agree that journalists carry a considerable responsibility with their work, but I find it hard to completely support the protectionism that exists in this industry.

Firstly, In don't feel that journalism training is anywhere extensive enough to justify the very privileged position that journalists have. Perhaps only experience can do that.

The NCTJ doesn't educate its students about any of the more intellectual aspects of journalism and the media. It teaches how to avoid libeling someone, and how to write a 250-word story on a council meeting. Nothing about the fourth estate, or any context and history about the profession.

Plus elitism is rife in the industry. How many very senior journalists and editors on the broadsheets and at the BBC are not Oxbridge trained? And if they aren't socially selective, major news organisations are nearly always politically biased and rarely in a conspicuous way. Newspapers all have a political agenda, but the whole tradition of newspapers is loaded with these kind of unspoken conventions. The UK media is generally very reliable but I suppose my point is just that there are very many things that are questionable about an industry with so much power.

There is also a rather arrogant attitude within the industry about the public, and the assumption that the opinions or knowledge of journalists is automatically more valuable than that of individual citizens. I reject that idea because everyone is entitled to express their opinion. So if the web enables someone to rant about how they distrust David Cameron, then great. At least they are expressing themselves and joining a wider debate.

Individuals attending news scenes and acting like reporters is a very different thing and I doubt this happens very often at all. But if they want to give up their own time and report these things for free because they don't think the local paper is doing it properly, then surely that's a good thing? Newspapers should listen to that kind of trend and respond accordingly.

Just because someone isn't a journalist, it doesn't mean they aren't very knowledgeable or capable of expressing a very valid argument in a very coherent way. As far as blogging is concerned, most are average and some are dreadful, but some are superb. Many of those people (when not blogging) are professionals, experts, or passionate followers of their own areas of interest. In that way, you could even argue that they are more qualified to write and publish in those areas than journalists.

I was at the Frontline event when the Sky News guy made the brain surgery comment. I don't know if you were there too, but I was felt that was a very clumsy analogy that just doesn't fit. Someone in the audience asked if he prefers professional sex!

I understand both sides of the case really, but I don't think they really need to be different sides. The ultimate objective is to have a better informed, more active public and I think both professional and citizen journalists can contribute to that in a complementary way.

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