The Citizen Journalism Guide…
6. Things we will encounter
We’ve seen how grassroots journalism by blogs has had an impact at various points politically, as ordinary people have amplified stories that were being ignored by the traditional press… Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia.
Not everyone realises that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar… Max Weber.
DO JOURNALISM for awhile and we will encounter a range of people and their attitudes.
Here are some of them…
Shoot the messenger
“Shoot the messenger’ describes how journalists, bloggers, photographers and videographers are sometimes blamed for reporting something that people find uncomfortable or that is critical of them or their organisation.
Rather than address the issue reported on, people will criticise the journalist for reporting on it. Sometimes, this can be an expression of revulsion or distaste of a topic and someone’s daring to write, photograph or produce video about it. Other times it can be an attempt to deflect attention, to take attention away from an issue by pointing the accusing finger at the journalist.
A well-known case of blame the messenger arose when in 1993 the New York Times published a photograph made by photojournalist, Kevin Carter. The image showed a famine-stricken child on hands and knees at a United Nations feeding centre during the second Sudanese civil war. A vulture landed behind the child and Carter made the photo then, according to the Wikipedia entry on the photo, chased the bird away.
According to the report, photojournalists had been told not to touch victims so as to avoid spreading disease. Carter estimated that up to 20 people an hour were dying at the feeding centre and in that situation regarded the girl as unexceptional.
The New York Times was criticised for publishing the photo, and the photographer for making it. The newspaper responded to questions about the girl’s fate by reporting that the photographer said she recovered sufficiently to resume her walk to the feeding centre.
The website, Rare Historic Photos , reported on the controversy:
Near the village of Ayod, Carter found a girl who had stopped to rest while struggling to a United Nations feeding centre, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. Careful not to disturb the bird, he waited for twenty minutes until the vulture was close enough, positioned himself for the best possible image and only then chased the vulture away.
At this point Carter was probably not yet aware that he had shot one of the most controversial photographs in the history of photojournalism.
The parents of the children were busy taking food from the plane, so they had left their children only briefly while they collected the food. This was the situation for the girl in the photo taken by Carter. A vulture landed behind the girl. To get the two in focus, Carter approached the scene very slowly so as not to scare the vulture away and took a photo from approximately 10 meters. He took a few more photos before chasing the bird away.
In this situation we see the danger of criticising an image, photographer and media company when critics were far distant from the event and lacked full knowledge about the image and the circumstances it was made in. It is always useful to consider that there may be facts and circumstances that we do not know that could account for what we see or read and that give a different meaning to what we imagine.
The reality relevant to Carter’s photograph is that journalists are not equipped to help in crises other than through their reporting, and emergency organisations might not want them to do so and leave it to the professionals.
We can deduce two things from this photograph and the reaction to it:
- making assumptions about the content of photographs can lead to misunderstandings
- photographers need to add descriptive captions to their published photographs to give them meaning.
Photojournalists are sometimes put into situations that pose a moral dilemma, like the photojournalist and the starving child. Critics might blame them for not helping an individual in a photo, though just how they would do that remains unsaid. Where there are numerous victims not shown in photographs, as in the example we have looked at, the question becomes which ones the photojournalist should help. Instead of blaming journalists for being uncaring and indifferent to the suffering around them, it can be better for would-be critics to reframe their concern. Instead of a blaming statement they could ask why the situation exists in the first place, the context of the photograph. Then the circumstances and scale of the situation might become clear.
For some journalists reporting disaster there is a tension around when to stop photographing and when to help. That came up for the Australian film journalist, the late Neil Davis, when as a young reporter he was covering the 1967 bushfires that burned into the suburbs of Hobart. He was filming a householder removing his possessions from a house as fire approached then, having got the footage, put down his camera and went to help the householder. He fulfilled his professional obligations first, then his humanitarian.
Blaming the photographer or journalist as in the case of the Sudanese girl is an example of the ‘shoot the messenger’ syndrome. It can occur in less-dramatic circumstances such as when bloggers and journalists find themselves criticised simply for reporting on a topic. Politicians and their ilk are known for criticising media organisations for reporting something critical of them or that reflects poorly on their actions or character. This is a diversionary tactic that attempts to reframe an issue as the fault of the media or blogger and to deflect attention off them and their actions.
Something similar recently came up for me when I reposted a photo on social media. A woman commented below the repost that the publication it appeared in was in error in posting a photo showing one of the people in it. I forget the details of what the photo showed, however it was an innocuous image of people engaged in doing something. The complainant said that the person in the photo had not given permission for it to be posted and that doing so was an ethical shortcoming for the publication. I got back to say that as the photo had been taken in a public place it was well within the law to take and publish it. She then responded by adopting the shoot-the-messenger position by saying that the photographer was ethically deficient for taking it.
Citizen journalists can be faced with moral dilemmas for which there are no easy answers.
Do we make and publish a photo of someone suffering, or write about them, because it illustrates some important issue in society? Does doing that impinge on their dignity, does it use them to symbolise a bigger issue or does it do both? Is it the citizen journalists’ job to put reporting an issue above considerations of personal dignity or privacy (keeping in mind that in Australia there is, legally, no expectation of privacy in a public place)?
People take photographs of a homeless man sleeping on the steps of the NSW State Library. Would publication of their photographs injure the dignity of the man? How could they caption their photographs to address the issue of destitution and homelessness?
The situation at the homeless peoples’ occupation of Martin Place in Sydney in mid-2017 provided a case in point. During the first occupation (it was closed down but the homeless returned later to set up camp again) a spokeswoman asked a photographer not to make images of the homeless people while he was photographing there. The solution was to make photos in which the homeless could not be identified although some were prepared to appear on camera to make a statement.
It was said that the homeless occupiers might not wish to be identified so as to retain some dignity. That came from someone unofficially speaking for them and was their projecting their moral judgement on others. Was the newsworthiness of homeless issues and the occupation sufficiently important to override considerations of personal dignity and anonymity? That is the moral dilemma: do personal privacy and dignity have greater or lesser value than an important social issue that needs addressing?
What we sometimes find is people talking it on themselves to speak for others when they are not involved. This is usually well-meaning, however sometimes they project their own values and beliefs onto those they see as victims and elect themselves as arbiters and spokespeople.
I photographed and spoke with people at the second occupation of Martin Place. Seeking to show how the camp was managed, I asked several men at the food services tent whether they minded appearing in the photos. They had no objection and were happy to be photographed by another photographer as well.
Citizen journalists should find out whom the actual spokespeople are and whether those who are saying what is right or wrong are truly representative of the people involved.
Moral panics are generated, deliberately or otherwise, when media, government, community organisations, churches or bloggers beat-up something to such an extent that fear about it is spread through the population.
Sometimes, governments create a moral panic around something, then claim that they are the key to a solution. This is not uncommon during election campaigns. The Australian federal election of May 2022 provided an example when the about-to-be-ousted prime minister tried to have a government department announce the interception of a refugee boat on the day before the election. He was undoubtedly unhappy when he ran into resistance from the department. By beating-up another moral panic around refugees and positioning his government as the solution to it, he hoped to swing votes his way. It didn’t work.
Moral panics may be created for political purposes, religious campaigns (abortion in the US is an example) or arise spontaneously from public fears. They might be started and manipulatied by people with a political or religious agenda or, like the fear over China’s military intentions in Australia’s region, arise from greater awareness of an issue. The quality of media coverage influences the trajectory they take in society and politics.
Moral panics have been created around genetically modified food, pesticides in food, mobile phone use, electromagnetic radiation, aircraft condensation trails (chemtrails), computer games, terrorism, vaccination, the Covid 19 pandemic and the government mandates around it, health and a lot more. Most turn out to be baseless but as citizen journalists we need be aware they could sometimes be true. We assess the evidence and take notice of authoritative sources.
Perpetrators of moral panics create folk devils as a focus for blame.
Folk devils are individuals, groups or demographics accused of being the cause of something. Diverting focus onto them may be a tactic by the guilty to deflect their guilt onto others, an act of transference.
By way of example, in 2017 former Reserve Bank official, Peter Mair, positioned age pensioners as folk devils when he suggested they hoard large denomination banknotes under their mattresses as a way to side-step means-testing for the age pension. He produced no evidence to back-up his claim but probably succeeded in making a lot of aged people angry. This was another example of ageism in which accusations, usually with as much evidence as the ex-bank official offered, claim particular age groups are responsible for a variety of social ills. Younger generations as well as baby-boomers are popular targets for people to position as folk devils.
Another case arose in 2018 when the Herald Sun newspaper uncritically reported federal government figures and claims about people exploiting unemployment benefits, people who were derided as ‘dole bludgers’. The term is an example of how consistently repeating an idea leads to its widespread acceptance. It positioned people legally receiving unemployment benefits as being guilty-by-association, as folk devils. The article reinforces the need to question what government, politicians and other figures wielding power in society say. Entitled Dole bludgers: Thousands exploiting unemployment benefits system and written by Jessica Marszalek, the story reported that “Thousands of dole bludgers are exploiting the welfare system, failing to turn up to appointments and even refusing to take jobs in favour of remaining on benefits.”
The story was a mere recitation of government claims. They were questioned in a more responsible story by Jason Murphy from News Ltd, entitled The big myth about dole bludgers.
The report contextualised the issue in reality:
But the dole bludger is a creature a bit like the Tasmanian Tiger. People claim they saw one, but their continued existence is largely a myth.
The government claims to be going on a Tasmanian Tiger hunt, and when it comes back, having shot all its bullets, we should ask who it was really shooting at.
The reality is that getting a job is very hard right now. Abundant jobs just aren’t out there, especially for younger and older Australians.
The article demolished the government’s story.
Other examples of folk devil abound. In 2017, US President Donald Trump cast the US media as folk devils and purveyors of ‘fake news’ when the media was critical of his record.
In the same year in Australia there was a moral panic around vaccination of children against disease in which anti-vaccination parents were positioned as folk devils in the media because, it was alleged, their failure to vaccinate their children against disease risked the health of other children. Irrespective of the arguments for and against vaccination, parents of unvaccinated children were cast as folk devils responsible for disease outbreaks.
The issue became particularly vociferous in the northern NSW town of Mullumbimby following an outbreak of whooping cough, a disease preventable by vaccination. The region was reported to have the highest percentage of unvaccinated children in the country. It took a more-general form when a local newspaper reported that in the northern NSW towns of Byron Bay and Mullumbimby, parents of young children were coming under peer pressure not to have their children vaccinated.
Comments were that the region was a national centre of anti-vaccination sentiment. The issue pitted pro-and anti-vaccination people as opponents, with the criticism of opponents of vaccination situating them as blameworthy and as folk devils in the whooping cough outbreak and in another medical emergency around a child taken to hospital with tetanus (which is not a communicable disease). Anti-vaccination advocates reinforced the polarisation and brought suspicion on themselves when they banned the media from attending the public appearance of controversial US anti-vaccination lobbyist, David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe. This raised the suspicion that anti-vaxxers were allergic to open coverage of their claims and had something to hide.
The to-and-fro positioning of social groups and professions as folk devils continued with the arrival of Covid 19 in 2020. Opponents of the government lockdowns and of vaccination positioned government and the medical profession as folk devils. The government positioned the anti-vaxxers as folk devils risking public health.
As citizen journalists we need to be aware that strong feelings around an issue, especially when it polarises opinion, is likely to ignore any middle ground or other opinion that exists. Searching this out and reporting it shows that issues are seldom black and white and that other opition exist.
Confirmation bias is a danger not only to our readers but to us as citizen journalists. It appears when we report only those facts and ideas that concur with our own beliefs, attitudes and values, and reject those that challenge them. It reinforces what we prefer to believe rather than looking at what the evidence suggests.
The phenomenon might take the form of disregarding facts and other information that brings what we believe into question. It is thus a selective practice, cherry-picking only what we agree with to bolster our argument or beliefs. Advocacy organisations are prone to confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias can be found in community-based groups, such as lobbies and associations formed around some common interest. Closely-connected groups establish their own norms of interaction, discussion and beliefs and sometimes disregard or even act defensively against whatever brings that into question. This is where critical coverage by bloggers can result in personal attacks on them, raising allegations about their motives in an attempt to discredit them.
Our role is to be aware of confirmation bias in our work and report information that goes against our personal beliefs. This is only fair to readers. We cannot control their own confirmation bias but we can point out the danger of allowing it to influence them.
Groupthink is another name for the how members of a group subscribe to some common belief, attitude or interpretation of an event.
It often comes about through the ‘echo chamber effect’ by which members reflect common attitudes and beliefs back and forth to each other like echoes in an empty room. The effect reinforces accepted beliefs and rejects those which would challenge them.
Groupthink is found among social groups as well as entities that are intellectually closed off from outside influence. It has a self-reinforcing effect and forms a reinforcing feedback loop in which the shared ideas come to be taken as actual truth. At worse, the effect manifests as hostility to some idea, person or group that contradicts or challenges the cherished group belief. This creates the impression that the group is under attack and can cause it to close ranks.
Citizen journalists can keep this phenomenon in mind when interviewing group members or reporting on their actions and beliefs. Be aware, though, that challenging the group can bring criticism and attack. The group might try to personally discredit us rather than try to refute our argument.
The Citizen Journalism Manual…
- Citizen journalism: A few definitions