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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Citizen journalists prove to be invaluable resources whose rights must be protected

Wisconsin activist and filmmaker Miles Kristan stood in front of Wisconsin Rep. Peter Barca’s office and held up his camera as police officers walked towards him. Moments prior, he had asked Barca and one of his staffers about Barca’s relationship with a Republican politician.

“Oh s—, they’ve got four cops coming after me,” he says into the camera. “You guys, they’ve got four cops coming after me for asking questions on camera.”

Kristan belongs to a growing class of bloggers, filmmakers and activists often referred to as citizen journalists. Although they are not professionals, they write about and record important issues and events. This raises an important question: should they be treated as journalists or regular citizens?

When a person blatantly disregards journalistic standards, they should be treated like any other misbehaving observer. But when they do engage in serious reporting, citizen journalists deserve the same treatment as professional reporters. This encourages citizen journalists to continue covering underreported stories and writing investigative reports.

Citizen journalists have contributed to many of the last year’s biggest news stories. From Ferguson to Syria, they captured video, wrote blog posts and provided eyewitness accounts that proved invaluable.

“While the term citizen journalists is often spoken with air quotes around that second word … they still play an important role in getting out early information,” wrote Erik Deckers in a post for problogservice. “Ever since George Holliday recorded the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles 20 years ago with a Sony Handycam, private citizens have become citizen watchdogs against the police, the government and, in some cases, even the media themselves.”

Unfortunately, people who do this kind of reporting are often antagonized by police and other officials because of their amateur status.

Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, was at the forefront of amateur reporting during the protests in Ferguson this past August.  He filled his Twitter feed with widely re-distributed video, pictures and commentary on the police response. But several days into the protests, Ferguson police arrested him and charged him with unlawful assembly.

“He is a citizen journalist of the best kind: a credible witness who has helped inform the wider public about a critical matter,” wrote grassroots journalism expert Dan Gillmor in a column for The Guardian. “Can anyone plausibly doubt that he and the two professional journalists, who were briefly taken into custody after police demanded they stop recording, were targeted because they were documenting law enforcement actions?”

The issue also extends nationally. The Free Flow of Information Act, introduced to Congress in 2013, aims to protect journalists by creating a federal shield law that would allow journalists to keep the names of sources secret.

But, the bill includes an amendment that would exempt unpaid journalists from its protections.

“This bill is described as a reporter shield bill,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein in a committee discussing the amendment. “I believe it should be applied to real reporters.”

Without a shield law to protect their sources, many citizen journalists would find it tougher to do investigative work.

“Many people still have the stereotypical notion of the blogger as the pajamarati, typing and ranting away in their parents’ basement,” wrote journalist Larry Atkins in a piece for The Huffington Post. “Many bloggers and website operators do engage in real reporting. The definition of who is a journalist or reporter should be interpreted broadly in light of the changing media landscape.”

This is not to say that all citizen journalists are reporters; some step outside clearly drawn boundaries for journalists. Kristan is a perfect example of this.

Kristan had badgered Barca incessantly before his arrest, even holding Barca’s office door open so he could continue shouting at him. His latest arrest was a surprise to few in Wisconsin; Kristan had a long history of aggravating government officials, including dumping beer on one Republican politician.

“No doubt what the Republicans have done with their agenda angered a lot of people in this state,” said Democratic Rep. Cory Mason of Racine, Wisconsin in an interview with The Journal Times. “But regardless of that, it is not acceptable to pour beer on someone’s head if you don’t agree with their politics.”

There must be action to protect citizen journalists and other amateur reporters who, unlike Kristan, do engage in legitimate reporting. Changing the language of and passing the Free Flow of Information Act would be just one step towards creating a more permissive atmosphere for amateur reporters.

Allowing citizen journalists to flourish will benefit all Americans by strengthening investigative reporting and keeping readers informed in ways not possible otherwise.

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