Alternative Journalism Issues:
Let's Talk About Citizen Journalists,
Progressive Journalists, and Movement Journalists
Traditionally, working journalists have been given special access to govenment meetings, courtrooms, and scenes of police or emergency activity such as public eents, crime sites, fires, etc.
Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights are journalists given any special rights to collect the news. There are special "Shield Laws" that give reporters extra procedural protections allowing them in some cases to protect the identity of their sources.
With the rise of the "Underground Press" and "Alternative Press" in the United States in the 1960s, the privileges and perogatives traditianlly granted journalists in the commercial press were demanded by alternative journalists. The police, who usually granted special "Press Cards," were not amused. Over time--and a few lawsuits--Press Cards were issued to many working reporters in the alternative media. This began to include alternative radio reporters, and (with the development of the 30-pound recording backpack "porta-pak" video units with their 10-pound cameras) alternative television reporters and videographers.
Internet journalism created the conditions for the development of a significant number of Citizen Journalists. Citizens performing journalism is nothing new, however. It was citizens of colonial Boston who reported what happened at the Boston Massacre commemorated by the famous engraving by Paul Revere. During the 1979 Stonewall uprising of gay people angry at being harassed by police, citizen journalists phoned in live reports (called "actualities") to Pacifica radio station WBAI in New York. The person who videoed the police beating of Rodney King was a citizen journalist.
But You Can't Wear Two Hats!
Here's the scenario. Sally Sleuth, a Citizen Journalist, gains special access to a public meeting where Joe Slick, a Tea Party leader is holding a press conference. After moving close to the podium, Sally pulls out a bag of coffee beans and begins pelting Joe Slick with them while denouncing the Tea Parties as unwitting tools of the corporate elites. Sally is dragged out of the event by security, then records herself for a You Tube video in which she claims a victory for the progressive movement. So...why not?
Based on traditional journalistic ethics, you cannot abuse special access and privileges by being a participant in the events you cover. This remains true even if you dismiss the concept of "objective" journalism.
If you are a participant observer in an event and agree with the general principles of unity of the event, then there is no ethical dilemma. The ethical breach occurs when you gain access under false pretenses and then pop up as an adversarial participant.
It screws it up for the rest of us!
You get to be the hero for one day on the internet, while for many months scores of other citizen journalists are banned from the access they need to report the story. Congratulations...how can we tell the difference between you and a paid agent provacateur. We can't. Don't do it. Don't wear two hats.
Journalists who are part of the movement for progressive social change
walk an ethical tightrope. Be aware that you may be asked by activists not to report a particular incident or to write something you know or reasonably believe is untrue.
Fiarness and accuracy require you to resist such special pleadings. Participants in social or political movements need to have
full and accurate information to make informed decisions. Discuss these ethical issues with other journalists
so that you will have thought through these matters and arrived at a place that balances ethics, politics, and your conscience.
These pages are adapted from a course, "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting," developed by Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, and Abby Scher for the
Z Media Institute hosted by Z Magazine in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Please do not copy or distribute material from these pages.
Links are welcome.
All material unless attributed to a specific author is
© 1968-2015 by Research for Progress
All Z Media Institute material © 1997-2015 by
Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher