Citizen journalists have ethics…too?

Mayhill Fowler, perhaps the most well-known citizen journalist, has proved she can be a journalist on her own — without the support of a large professional organization. She uses her own tools and finds her own stories, yet, her methods of reporting raise the question of whether citizen journalists are ethical and accurate when it comes to their work.

Any one can be a citizen journalist, especially in today’s digital era of new technologies and social media. But do citizen journalists report stories following the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics? Well, there are two sides to the debate. One, citizen journalists are just as ethical and accurate as professional journalists. And two, there is no way citizen journalists can be ethical or accurate since they have no professional training.

Citizen journalists, I believe, are ethical and accurate in their reporting, just like professional journalists. In fact, I do not deny that sometimes citizens are better journalists who can present the straight facts. The Arab Spring, for example, became a well-known story after having first been released by citizen journalists in the areas of conflict. The fact that citizens who were witnessing the scenes firsthand submitted the video footage to news outlets emphasizes a positive factor in citizen journalism. Twitter has become a large force in facilitating citizen journalism, as it is a social medium that allows for people to post video or photographs of an event occurring right in front of them. The news cannot be more accurate than having citizens post footage they shot from a scene they witnessed firsthand, and with that, citizen journalism is doing society a favor.

Contrarily, there is the argument that citizen journalism negatively impacts society as a result of poor and inaccurate reporting. Fowler, for instance, has been the center of debate regarding her ethical methods of reporting. In one incident where she reported on then presidential candidate Barack Obama, she openly expressed her support for Obama while working on the article. Does this not break the code of ethics in regard to conflict of interest? She also wrote an article for The Huffington Post on another fellow citizen journalist’s experience with former President Bill Clinton in what was called “Sleazygate.” The journalist’s experience with Clinton brings to light the ethical issue of reporting, as Clinton did not know that he was being recorded and was speaking with a journalist. The journalist, who clearly did not identify himself/herself as a journalist recording the interaction, challenged the professional journalism ethic. This example highlights just one issue of citizen journalism, which has been a controversial topic over the last few years.

It is to my belief that citizen journalists follow SPJ’s Code of Ethics more closely than any professional journalist. Since citizen journalists have no professional outlet to lean on or work for, they cannot help but rely on the Code of Ethics that outlines important journalistic values. One fact that the Code of Ethics has yet to include is the use of social media and where those tools play in to ethical reporting tactics. Of course, there are numerous debates surrounding the use of social media to obtain information or to get close with sources, but there is no mention of social media usage in the Code of Ethics. Should SPJ adopt a clause about ethical social media usage in its Code of Ethics? If so, how would they determine what is ethical and what is not?

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