Come out from behind the shadows

Citizen journalism has been propping up mainstream media for the last few years and it is encouraging to see the public taking such an interest in the process of news gathering and reporting. But while journalism is a highly regulated profession, who regulates the bloggers?

In the case of the London bombings blogs and social networking sites as well as amateur videos and photos were used by mainstream organisations to supplement their own coverage. It happens every day, across the world. But there are problems with this. Citizen journalists are unregulated, subjective, and their material is often amateurish.

This week we saw Prince Harry’s crown jewels on display on a US entertainment news site TMZ.com after photos were taken of him at a Vegas party. I doubt sincerely there was a reporter at the bash but the photos were still published. Perhaps it was in the public interest.

The victims of citizen journalism are invariably professional photographers.

The NUJ West of Ireland branch drew up guidelines a few years ago requesting newsrooms to only use photographs from NUJ affiliated photographers. This was a move designed to protect the jobs of photographers who found that their profession was being infiltrated by teachers, for the most part, with an interest in photography.

However it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement such guidelines. Ordinary citizens are often the first at the scene of an event. Mobile phones with relatively good quality cameras mean that newspapers can get away with, and often rely on, footage from citizen journalists, otherwise they would miss the story. Professional journalists and photographers cannot cover every event, especially unplanned ones.

However, when reading online blogs and posts, readers need to always bear in mind who the author is, what organisations they are affiliated with (if appropriate ), and what their motivations are in reporting the story. Newspapers should take an unbiased, objective view. Citizen journalists on the other hand are usually motivated for different reasons. Because they are not bound by a charter of ethics and are unregulated, their opinions are often obvious and one-sided. That should not be the case in standard reportage.

You might wonder where all this is going. There are a few motivations. Firstly very disturbing Facebook page has been set up entitled [Controversial Humor] Cancer is funny cause people die. It has over 9,000 likes and over 800,000 people talking about it. Mostly people posting on the site are disgusted, expressing their feelings using colourful and strong language. There are also a number of counter Facebook pages calling for it to be closed down. However, a side debate has emerged saying that closing the page down would be killing free speech. Should free speech be allowed at all costs and when should the censors enter the building? It is something that needs some deep thinking. No one seems to be regulating the bloggers and why should they be allowed say what they want, when they want and without any personal responsibility.

We saw Mayo District Court Judge Mary Devins get into hot water a couple of weeks ago over comments about social welfare being a Polish charity.

Michael Ring was the next victim. He was called to speak at a press conference without prior notification and made a particular comment about the importance of spending on sport rather than hospitals. His intention was fairly obvious. But twitter and facebook went wild.

It is good that public servants are being held to account for their words and actions. But what is worrying is how people think they can slander and degrade the characters of any individual by hiding behind a social network site or blog. No one deserves that kind of attention. Journalists certainly can’t or wouldn’t engage in the character bashing that goes on on such sites/forums.

Yes have your opinion on the issue and express it, but keep the character bashing at bay.

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