You probably have a smartphone in your pocket. Powerful little thing isn't it. TV. Films. Music. Games. Apps. Limitless selfies. All at your fingertips within seconds. Now imagine if a protest kicks off outside the cafe you're supping at. You rush outside, press record and capture events as they unfold. Then, you share it to Facebook and Twitter. Does that make you a journalist? Did you get the whole story or simply your view of events? These questions were at the heart of a recent Intelligence Squared debate in London, presented in association with Google+ and ITV News.
Some of the most powerful and indelible images of breaking news stories during the past few years have come from so-called citizen journalists on the ground: the tsunami in Thailand, the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, Syria, the Boston Marathon, the Japanese earthquake, the London riots, the brutal murder of Lee Rigby… A window to events as they unfold. Traditional media and trained reporters cannot be everywhere and when they do shimmy their way to the front, they are hardly the most inconspicuous, agile or welcomed. So surely having more information at hand is good for both the press and the public?
But this tidal wave of media can be a double-edged sword. There is a danger of misinformation and misinterpretations, hoaxes and vested interests. I still remember the Boston bombings wildfire on Twitter, major news organisations posting with scant regard for journalistic ethics and standards. As Mark Austin, ITV News anchor and chair for the evening, asked in his introduction, "Should we always believe what we see? And is citizen journalism informing or distorting our understanding of world events?"
Here are a few soundbites from the panellists that evening:
Founder of Videre (set credere), a human rights group that works to expose violations around the globe through covert filming. Yakobovich, a former Israeli soldier, has trained hundreds of citizens in the West Bank to use cameras to fight for justice.
"Journalists can't be everywhere. They're not always able to be on the ground. Citizen journalists are an underground and sustainable network of people that can give us the news that we wouldn't normally hear about."
"Everyone has an agenda. Everyone should verify sources and do their own checking."
Renowned libertarian writer and director of Britain's Institute of Ideas. She writes regularly for national newspapers and is a member of the European Cultural Parliament.
"Citizens with cameras: good. But not journalism. Journalism is about developing context, being skeptical and asking awkward questions. These people are just watching events and not really understanding or asking the big questions [who, why etc]."
"There is the potential for a distortion of the truth in some citizen footage."
"Detachment and objectivity are important benefits of the parachuted in journalist. They are there to convince us why this news is important."
"[Traditional] journalists are trying to ape the citizen journalists too much. There has been a collapse of editorial confidence [retweets as a metric of success at some papers]."
"We [the public] should hold journalists to account. Demand the best of truth. Not try to do it ourselves."
Author, journalist and broadcaster, who writes two fortnightly columns for the New Statesman.
"The best definition of journalism is by HL Mencken: 'It is the job of the journalist to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.' It's my watchword. Run that test…"
"There is a frisson that lies behind a lot of this smartphone footage, a rather grotesque form of entertainment – a form of comfort, if that's what it is – that responsible journalism should not be involved in."
"Citizen journalism is coming in to fill a vacuum but it's a mistake to call it journalism."
"Everybody can be heard now, but nobody's listening."
"Here is an example of non-journalism: the use of chemical weapons in Syria, supposedly by the al-Assad regime, which was not in fact the case. Footage almost triggered ground force invasion by the US. Decontextualised citizen journalism could have precipitated a human rights violation on a gargantuan scale."
"Of course [the citizen journalism debate] is about money and revenue streams. There is a febrile mood that's created an atmosphere of hysteria. Everyone's tweeting, sending in this smartphone material… But who get to use this head of effectively useless steam that this material generates?"
"Anyone over the age of 50 will remember growing up around the time of Vietnam and witnessing unmediated news coverage for the first time. It took a while for the media to understand what a responsible relationship with that material was. It is the responsibility of mainstream news media to try to develop a way of dealing with [citizen journalism] material and developing an ethic around it."
World-renowned photojournalist and war photographer. In 2012 Conroy suffered severe injuries in the Syrian city of Homs during an attack that killed two other reporters, including celebrated Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin.
"We wouldn't dream of printing hearsay. We would go to the spot. The job of the journalist is to bear witness. Marie was incredible at going one step further, one step further… With citizen journalists there isn't that depth."
"Give me 20 minutes with that footage and I can tell any story you like."
Citizen journalist and founder of Video Volunteers, an organisation that works to empower India's rural and slum communities, who have been excluded from the traditional media.
"There has always been a continuum between activism and journalism. They go hand in hand. We [Video Volunteers] talk about video for change. Our network of community corespondents work as reporters. They don't just make the videos, they use them to try to solve the problem that the video addresses. If they see that opportunity … they seize it."
"Subjective personal experience is certainly not journalism, but it's nonetheless valid. A real opportunity now exists…"
Soviet-born American journalist, director and producer, currently reporting for VICE News. He was recently held captive for three days by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"In Ukraine, a lot of people have started setting up Livestreams from occupied public buildings but I wouldn't call this journalism so much as activism. They use it for co-ordination but us journalists can follow the cameras set up to know what's going on where."
"Citizen journalists are mostly endangering themselves."
Director of Newsgathering at ITV News, who was sitting in the audience that night. He is chiefly responsible for handling citizen journalism submissions to the channel.
"In Syria, where access becomes increasingly difficult, meaningful contacts are hard to come by and reporters are treated as outsiders, citizen journalists can be a great resource. We've always needed citizen journalists in one shape or another – eg fixers – but now they have the power to help make the news."
"Mainstream media organisations are more important and relevant than ever. We continue to have bureaus and to report news from around the world because we must confront the fact that a lot of material on the internet isn't unreliable."
The subject of verification came up time and again. Several companies have tried to answer this challenge by helping to filter the authentic and reliable from the noise and successfully bridge the gap between traditional and social media. CNN employs various mechanisms to verify information posted to their iReport platform, including checking the source's account for multiple videos or photos, and proximity to the location of the incident using geolocation information. However, CNN is also aware of the dangers in identifying sources and their locations, particularly in oppressed countries or where violent acts have occurred. So certain submissions can appear anonymously to the public.
Storyful is a news agency that came to prominence during the Arab Spring uprising, delivering a stream of reliable footage from the frontline. They use a combination of old-fashioned journalistic manpower and clever algorithm software to identify, verify and provide social media content for some of the biggest names in news, including Reuters, the Wall Street Street Journal and Channel 4.
On a recent blog post the company identified a "fundamental difference" between the work of the citizen journalist and the professional journalist: "While this [difference] makes neither less important, it must be kept in mind. Many citizen journalists have more obvious vested interests and personal biases. They may, for instance, be participants entrenched in the situation they are reporting on, their views thus involuntarily skewed. This does not necessarily invalidate what they see and record, but taking theirs as the 'whole truth' can lead to a view about news events that has more than just a few blind spots." A clear example of this is the reporting of conflict in the Ukraine.
Tim Pool was one name strangely absent from the panel. He has helped to popularise the term "citizen journalist" more than anyone else. It is, however, a title that he quickly rejected when I asked him about the debate and the reliability of footage from reporters such as himself. "I am not a citizen journalist," he replied. "I am the Head of Live News at Vice. What they are really arguing is that if you don't have a degree or get a salary that somehow you are less ethical than they are. Rubbish. Always consider your sources."
The 28-year-old American came to prominence in 2011 when he hopped on a bus to New York and broadcast from his phone for 21 hours non-stop during Occupy Wall Street's eviction from Zuccotti Park. His DIY ethos, "commitment to the decentralisation of information" and determination to "tell it like it is" using everyday technology really chimed with hundreds of thousands of news-hungry streamers across the world. Although some have questioned his gung-ho approach, filming everything and everyone without first seeking consent. Since then he has experimented with a drone, hacked a pair of Google Glass to report from Istanbul and even co-created Taggly, an attribution app that allows the user to instantly share photos and video footage with an optional watermark. The citizen journalist gets credit for their content, while news agencies are able to check the veracity of the material they wish to use.
If there was a consensus among the panel it is that the footage from these citizen journalists has some value – particularly in closed countries where, as Mark Austin put it, mainstream journalism does not exist. But professional in traditional media are the masters of their own destiny. The onus is on editors and trained journalists to be collaborative and resourceful in their mission to make sense of the world in an informative and accessible way. But they should, as always, rigorously check their sources.
And that's not all. A good journalist is skeptical, always quick to question their own assumptions and investigate the possibility that they are wrong. As Guardian reporter Paul Lewis did during the investigation into the unlawful death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009. After speaking about this – and the Jimmy Mubenga case – at a TED talk on citizen journalism in 2011, Lewis concluded with the following line: "That process of witnessing, recording and sharing … is journalism. And we can all do it."
A powerful ideal and an impulse to be encouraged in every person.