17: Practices for citizen journalists

Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A journalist is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others. She cannot do her work without judging what she sees.
…Marguerite Duras.

Journalism, like democracy, is not something that is achieved. It is a work in progress, and not every day is as good as the last.
…John Maxwell Hamilton.

The citizen journalist is called upon to interview many strange lifeforms. An impromptu radio interview with fish people with a message who emerged from the harbour’s waters.

TO MAKE OUR JOURNALISM credible and to create a good reputation for ourselves, we can import practices from the journalism of the pre-digital era into our work.

Tabloid newspapers have degraded the practice of journalism through a combination of ignoring newsworthy material, ideological bias and alarmist headlines. In contrast, the so-called ‘quality press’, such as some of the long-running newspapers, followed journalistic ethics and practices that brought them credibility among readers, and public esteem. Most of these practices can be brought over to the practice of citizen journalism.

Following are guidelines, ethics and practices that will bring our journalism, whatever its form, and us, as citizen journalists, a positive reputation.

To be fair to readers and regarded as reliable, our work needs to:

  • be verifiable, so as to ascertain the accuracy or truth of what is reported; this we can do by providing or linking to evidence
  • maintain its independence from external influence to avoid bias
  • be accountable; this means being able to confirm to readers what is reported and taking the responsibility of correcting errors; keep in mind that in reporting breaking news, full information might not yet be available and what is available may be erroneous.

Practices for citizen journalists

Accuracy

Is our story and the facts it reports as accurate as we can ascertain at the time?

We can only report the information at hand, what is known at the time. Facts, and thus accuracy, might change as new information becomes available. This can be reported in updates to our story. Doing this is important in reporting situations that are still unfolding. Expect numbers and other details to change as more information becomes available.

Accuracy is likely to be variable when we report eyewitness comments. We will look at this later.
 
Journalists are sometimes accused of inaccuracy and bias when their reporting contradicts personal beliefs and values and where people disagree with what is reported. It is those beliefs and values that are the issue , not journalism.

Accuracy in journalism is also contingent on the adequacy and accuracy of what sources tell journalists. Sources sometimes offer only partial truths and sometimes they lie. They will pass on information as they interpret it through their own beliefs and values. This can bias the information.

Media releases issued by organisations may offer only partial information that is favourable to the organisation. Where it is not possible to corroborate the information there is the risk that inaccuracies could be reported.

If we are writing about something we have deeper knowledge of we are likely to discern what is not being said by a source and what is unlikely to be true.

Alternative comment can be sought when the source is not forthcoming with missing information. Where this is unobtainable we can say what information is unavailable at the time.

Authorities such as police might not release full information immediately because doing that could compromise ongoing investigations. Report it when it is released. Names of victims might be withheld until family or relatives are notified. Best not to let them learn of some mishap from the media.

Ignornance misleading and leads to false accusation
A local resident group which at a public meeting alleged that a council was draining a wetland to take the water for itself serves as an example of how observations and ignorance can lead to inaccurate beliefs and misleading statements.

The group’s comment was most likely based on its members’ observation that the level of water in the wetland varied over time. They never made clear what their allegation was based on. Sometimes during dry times the water disappeared completely. Rather than asking why, the group assumed it was council’s doing despite the absence of a pump that would be needed to remove the quantity of water involved.

The reality was that evaporation in the shallow wetland depleted the lake, as did it being an ephemeral wetland the waters of which infiltrated the sandy soil of the wetland into the aquifer below. This accounted for the wetland emptying during dry periods. Also ignored by the complainant was the large and clearly visible drain pipe that drained water when the wetland reached a certain level so as to prevent local flooding.

The example demonstrates that a little scientific understanding trumps assumption, erroneous belief, a lack of observation and deduction and wild allegations that do nothing more than embarrass those making them.

Citizen journalists do well to question such claims rather than report them as-made. An added factor in this example was the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) group’s long-running hostile attitude to council and staff. Learning about that would influence how citizen journalists reported the allegation.

In reporting local news, as citizen journalists we do well to make the assumption that what we are told might not be the whole story and might be more fictional than factual. There are usually agendas, some overt and others covert, and a history standing behind the story. There may also be more opinion than the usual for-and-against polarities. Sometimes, that other opinion goes unnoticed because the polarised opinion dominates the issue. It might be that the other opinion no longer attends public meetings and has become more or less invisible, having seen or been victim to the wrath of NIMBY or other groups.

Adequacy

Have we provided sufficient information so that readers gain an understanding of what we are reporting?

Adequacy is about reporting sufficient information so that readers/viewers/listeners can gain insight into what we report.

Have we placed an event in its wider context and linked it to related events? Is it something unique or is it the manifestation of some underlying, ongoing process, trend or issue?

An example of adequacy in reporting was the homeless peoples’ camp in Martin Place in Sydney CBD in July and August 2017. It would have been easy to report just the camp and the disagreement between the City of Sydney’s lord mayor and the state government as an isolated event. The better media reports linked the camp to the broader issue of the rising number of homeless people in the city and the reasons they were homeless, such as the high cost of rental accommodation, lack of state government emergency accommodation for people forced out of their homes, precarious employment conditions and poor mental health services. This wider context provided a more adequate story because it linked the factors that gave rise to the issue, what the state government might do to address homelessness and positioned it as an ongoing social issue.

It is a bit like a mushroom. What forces its way above ground and becomes visible is the fruiting body of the plant. What remains invisible below is the bulk of the structure and the links that are ongoing and that manifest now and then in a fruiting body. The homeless peoples’ camp was like a fruiting body, a mushroom, forcing its way upwards into the public realm from the ongoing structure of homelessness below. Events are often the signs of some hidden process, trend or malfunction the disclosure of which has an important place in good reporting.

An example of inadequate media reporting occurred when the Eastern Courier, a Sydney local newspaper, failed to contact Randwick Council to clarify why some small trees, poor specimens of no botanical significance, were removed to make way for construction of landscaping works.

Instead of finding out why the trees were removed the newspaper reported the comments of a complainant local woman, a critic of the council, quoting her allegations. Left unsaid was the fact that councils planting plan would improve the biodiversity of the area where the pergola was being built and that the pergola would provide shade and shelter to park users. On being contacted by the council the newspaper later reported what was actually going on.

This could be seen as a newspaper seeking balance with successive reports over time. That is how balance in reporting often happens, however it would have made a more inclusive report to seek comment from council and from others knowledgable about plants and landscape design and include that in the first story. In this case there was factual error in what the woman claimed, and inadequate reporting by the newspaper.

Attribution

Have we attributed facts, figures, photographs, graphics and information to those providing them?

For all but common knowledge, non-attribution could be taken as intellectual dishonesty if information appears as though it is our own when it is not. When dealing with the photographs, illustrations and writing of others, attributing them to their source enacts the Moral Rights provision of the Copyright Act.

Attributing facts, statements and ideas to their originator is an ethic in traditional as well as citizen journalism.

For example:

According to Yvonne Gluyas, organiser of the national performance poetry slams and herself an award-winning performance poet, “Performance poetry is more than a stage act. The best of it is social commentary. It uses satire, sarcasm and humour to make some point about something happening in society.”

Here, a direct quote is identified by quote marks, signifying these are words spoken (or written) by someone. The source is attributed by name and by role. Stating her role establishes her authority in making the statement.

Assumptions

Sometimes we make assumption based on facts and information at hand. We might also report the assumptions of others. It is valid to do this, however when making assumptions make it clear that they are assumptions.

Be prepared to replace assumption with fact when that becomes available. Be wary in interviewing people, such as eyewitnesses, because they may well report their own assumptions about an incident rather than tell us what they actually saw or know.

The best way to deal with this is to get several accounts so that points of commonality can be identified, areas of probable fact, and so individual assumption can be filtered out. Remember that with eyewitness accounts some individuals might have seen or know something others do not.

Another assumption we encounter is assuming that people are all like the writer. People are not all like us. Judging people this way can lead to a them-and-us situation and to positioning those we perceive to be different as deviant or folk devils.

For example, it can be erroneous to assume others share our values or beliefs, that they have a similar life experience to us or similar aspirations or subscribe to the same social norms. Not everyone, for example, might share the middle class attitudes of a journalist because they might not identify with being middle class. Assumptions negate personal outlooks coming from life experience.

Avoiding assumption based on the lifestyle and other characteristics of the journalist is important when reporting about people who live outside the social mainstream.

Corroboration

How accurate is what we are told? Is it true? Are there witnesses? Can anyone else verify that something happened? Are there facts or other reports to confirm something?

We are asking for corroboration. When we confirm the details of something it improves the accuracy of what we report. This is why, where possible, it is good to go to the original source, whether that is a person, organisation or document. Doing this can verify or disprove assertions that are made. It provides the evidence that something is authentic.

For example, when a Sydney woman was confronted by an aggressive and abusive person in a public place, the presence of others who came to her aid corroborated what she reported.

Objectivity

Citizen journalists, as well as others, bring their own assumptions, values and beliefs to their writing even if this is done unconsciously. We need be aware of this and to offset it so we can write about something without these things unconsciously shaping our story.

Objectivity in journalism presupposed that journalists are completely logical and rational people. We know that isn’t true. What they can do is to be aware of their prejudices and beliefs so that they can avoid their influencing the questions they ask and what they write.

The old notion of objectively reporting ‘just the facts’, as if that were possible, is often the argument politicians and the powerful trot out in responding to the critical reporting of them in the media. This can be an attempt to deflect the argument away from them and onto the journalist. In the year following his election, Donald Trump did this when he blamed the media for America’s ills. This is documented in The Fourth Estate: The NY Times and Trump, a series broadcast by Australia’s SBS TV in June 2018.

Eyewitness accounts

“There’s a reason they say that eyewitness identification is unreliable: People are suggestible. Memory is a reconstruction, not a record.
…Watch me disappear, a novel by Janelle Brown.

It may be alarming that courts of law rely on eyewitness accounts as evidence. Eyewitness accounts can be misleading and inaccurate. We need to keep this in mind in our work.

People notice different things. They miss details because they overlook them or because they are out of sight. In putting together a report from eyewitness accounts we may find the accounts contradictory. This might simply be due to people noticing different things or to part of an incident being out of sight. It may be due to people including assumptions in what they report rather than reporting just what they saw. They might include heresay, what others said.

People filter and understand things through their own attitudes and beliefs, so what they say can be variable and inaccurate.

For these reasons it is best to get a number of eyewitness accounts and draw out what is common to them. This gives us a basis of what is probably true. We clearly state in our article that these are eyewitness accounts.

An example of the danger of assumption by eyewitnesses is this report of a court encounter, an extrapolation of a real event:

Cross-examining the prosecutions eyewitness, Robert Hall, defence lawyer Charlene Lisbon asked him what he saw.

“I saw the woman… the defendant… come out of Birchalls stationery shop with a can of spray paint in her hand”, he said.

“Did you see her paint over the sexually abusive art work on the van”, asked Ms Lisbon.

“Well, not exactly”, replied Mr Hall.

“So tell the court what you did see”, said Ms Lisbon.

“I saw her carrying the spray paint towards the van as if to use it”, Mr Hall responded.

“But did you actually witness the defendant spray the art work on the van”, asked Ms Lisbon is a more assertive tone.

“Well, no”, Mr Hall said. “But she had the can of spray paint and was heading in the direction of the van”.

“So, let’s be clear. You saw the defendant with the spray can walking in the general direction of the van but you didn’t actually see her spray the art work?”, asserted Ms Lisbon.
 
“Well, I assumed she sprayed the art work although I didn’t see her actually do it”.

“Could the defendant have been carrying the can of spray paint to her own vehicle which was parked in the parking space just beyond the spray painted vehicle, and that would have necessitated her walking past the spray painted van”, Ms Lisbon asked.

“Um… I guess so”, responded Mr Hall.

The report identifies as assumption that the woman with the can of spray paint defaced the van.

Here’s a report extrapolating an actual incident in which a small child was frightened by a large dog in a public park. It demonstrates the unreliability of eyewitness accounts when the eyewitness does not witness the entire incident:

Commenting on the incident, eyewitness Patty Barker said, “I saw the man chasing the dog. He was running from behind the shrubs after it as if trying to catch it or chase it away. The dog owner rushed towards him calling on him to stop.

“I don’t like cruelty to animals and seeing the dog being chased distressed me”.

The man and the dog owner had a heated exchange before the dog owner attached a leash to the dog and walked away.

May Campbell was another eyewitness to the incident. She was walking on the opposite side of the park when she heard a child screaming.

“I looked over and saw this dog jumping at the child”, she said. “I think it was just being friendly but it was the same height as the child and was clearly terrifying her. The owner was some distance away and started walking towards the child and dog.

“When the dog jumped at the little girl the parent pushed it away with his foot then chased it away”.

The eyewitness seeing the man chasing the dog interpreted it as an act of cruelty. Her view of the dog’s harassment of the child was blocked, out of sight behind the shrubbery. She could not see the extenuating circumstances, that the dog was harassing a small child and the parent was defending the child by chasing the dog away. Both commentators accurately reported what they witnessed, however the assumption of cruelty was based on an incomplete witnessing of the incident. This is why more than a single eyewitness should be interviewed.

Hearsay

Hearsay is the passing on of information that a person has learned from others. It is secondhand information reported by people who are not directly involved in or did not witness something.

Hearsay can be unreliable. Remember that what we are told by people not present at some event or incident might have been distorted in transmission.

Sometime, hearsay might be all that we have. We need to think about whether we report it or not. That depends on our assessment as to its probable accuracy. If we include it we should say that we are reporting hearsay. That’s only fair to our readers. It is us saying that we have no first-hand reports, that this is what others believe. It exonerates us from reporting incorrect information as we have made it clear that we are uncertain of the facts. If it is inaccurate we should update the story when reliable information becomes available.

Fairness

Are we being fair to people we write about? Do we accurately report what they say? We can still be fair even while being critical.

Advocacy journalism writes in support of a certain course of action, however it can include counter-argument and often will do so, so as to refute it. This clarifies the issue and makes the citizen journalist appear fairer in their treatment of the topic.

Media organisations sometimes seek fairness in how they report, however this can degenerate into a he-said-she-said type of reporting in which the notion of fairness is merely to interview spokespeople for-and-against. This type of journalism omits other points of view and leaves audiences with only a partial understanding of an issue. It is journalism oversimplified.

An example was reporting climate change by national broadcasters, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in which the notion of fairness was ‘balancing’ the opinion of someone warning about the consequences of climate change with a climate change denier.

While this might have met the requirements for what the organisations believed to be fairness and balance in reporting, critics pointed out that in giving a small number of deniers the same credibility as the overwhelming majority who study the science, the media corporations misrepresented the balance of opinion about climate change in which the overwhelming scientific opinion is that climate change is human-caused and a real danger.

In seeking fairness and balance through a simple for-and-against binary interview, the media organisations misrepresented the proportionality of informed opinion.

Let’s continue with the local controversy over dogs in a park as an example because it is the sort of issue that citizen journalists reporting local news will encounter. The report goes like this:

The park was originally designated as dog-free, however Council decided to allow dogs on-leash as a concession to local people.

Now, dog owners want the entire park made off-leash. They say the nearby off-leash park is unsafe for their dogs because it is unfenced and their dogs could run onto the street. There was one such incident when a dog was killed by a passing car.

The state government’s Companion Animals Act says that dog owners must keep their animals under control at all times, including when off-leash. This includes in parks designated by council to be off-leash. It is the owners’ responsibility to ensure their dogs do not run onto the road where they risk injury to themselves and to drivers.

Dog owners continue to ignore the arguments of those wanting the park to remain on-leash. The adjacent preschool centre uses the park and does not want children stepping on dog droppings that dog owners fail to clean up. The volunteers maintaining the gardens say that dogs deliberately let off-leash dig in the garden and uproot plants. Dogs also scare off wildlife and their droppings and urine can damage native vegetation and contaminate the adjacent nature reserve.

In advocating for the park to remain dog-on-leash, the writer thought it fair to include the argument of those wanting it off-leash, then went on to provide evidence to refute their argument.

Issues are complex and often involve more than for-and-against opinion. Failure to report reasonable opinion other than that of the main protagonists risks only partial reporting and disallows alternative voices.

Becoming a mouthpiece

Journalists risk becoming a mouthpiece when they continually respond to statements made by someone, whether in a complementary, neutral or critical manner. This inadvertently gives the people or organisations making the statements greater speaking rights that others.

An example would be a politician who is frequently reported. Repeated reporting amplifies their voice, giving what they comment on greater prominence than other points of view and denying the public alternative information.

Covering prominent people and organisations is necessary. Rather than simply repeating what they say, including that within a fuller treatment of the topic they raise contexts their statements and introduces other opinion.

Let’s revisit the homeless peoples’ camp in Martin Place as an example. Rather than give the state government most coverage and becoming its mouthpiece, some reports situated their and the occupiers’ action within the context of homelessness in the city and so created a broader understanding.

Cherry-picking

Just as picking ripe cherries provides us with a tasty snack, so does selectively choosing facts and information provide us with an article supporting our point of view. Omitted is contradictory evidence.

That is cherry-picking. It is deliberately done to push some agenda, however it can be done unconsciously when individuals choose to read and believe only those reports that agree with how they think. This results in confirmation bias, the selection of only the information that supports a particular point of view.

Cherry-picking facts and reports is a common tactic of those pushing some argument. What to does is leave readers unfamiliar with the argument with a partial and biased understanding.

We should be clear that cherry-picking is not a good tactic for citizen journalists wishing to be seen as credible. What they can do is point out cherry-picking by protagonists.

Alternative facts

The idea of ‘alternative facts’ came to public notice with the election of Donald Trump.

Let’s be clear — there are no ‘alternative’ facts. There are facts and there are non-facts. Facts are demonstrable truths.

A few questions

These points come to us from the days when print and broadcast journalism was all there were. The media world has now been muddied with the babble of voices in digital media, some of which disregard these points and present highly-biased articles reporting only half-truths or untruths.

Whether we abide by these points in our work depends on our motivations in becoming citizen journalists, whether we are prisoners of some ideology or organisational or personal agenda or whether we really are free agents of a democratic media.

When presented with some media product, we ask:

  • is this a reasonable report based on facts as presently known?
  • has the writer issued updates to the original story and has the writer discussed how these affect the story?
  • does the article provide us with enough information to form an understanding of the topic and how it links to other news?
  • where comments have been reported and where documents and other incidents are mentioned, does the writer tell us who wrote or made them?;
  • are there weblinks to articles and reports?
  • is what is reported as first-hand information actually from people who have been involved in the incident or event, from others present when it happened, or is it information they have been told by those who were there? is second-hand information identified as such?
  • are reported comments attributed to the people making them or to documents in which they appear? are quantities referenced? how can we verify them?
  • does the writer include counterargument in the article? how is this treated? if it is criticised, is the criticism fair? does the writer report counterargument accurately? do they link to original sources of the counter-argument?
  • does the writer appear to be selective in choosing information that supports their assertions? have they left our information that would counter those assertions?