Citizen journalism: I’ll take it, flaws and all

Paul Carr, who started writing for TechCrunch not long ago, is an entertaining writer, and he often puts his finger on issues that others tend to avoid in their headlong rush towards whatever is shiny and new, which is why I’m glad Mike Arrington hired him. But I think his latest rant against “citizen journalism” is misplaced. In the piece, which is entitled “After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth,” Carr talks about how a soldier on the base where the shootings occurred last week was posting to Twitter throughout the ordeal.

Tearah Moore, who recently returned from Iraq, posted a number of comments about what was happening, including the fact that stretchers were being brought in, that one person had allegedly been shot in the testicles, and that the shooter had died. Among other things, Carr notes that Moore’s tweet about the shooter being dead was wrong (although she didn’t say that she knew this, she just commented on it). But his main complaint seems to be that her tweets about someone being shot in the testicles, etc. had no redeeming value and were therefore “entertainment or tragi-porn.”

As he puts it, her behaviour had nothing to do with getting the word out but was a case of “look at me looking at this.” He then goes on to say that the tweeting of events during protests in Iran did nothing to actually change events in that country, and that all of this so-called “citizen journalism” is merely selfish and egotistical. And finally, he argues that this applies to the shocking video footage of Neda Agha Soltan’s death in Iran — that the person shooting the video didn’t try to help, but simply engaged in a cruel and unfeeling act of voyeurism.

The question of whether bystanders or observers should intervene in emergency situation is a worthwhile debate to have, but I don’t think Carr’s examples meet the test.

Tearah Moore isn’t a medical person, nor was she a military police officer, so the idea that she should have either been helping victims or tracking down the shooter instead of posting to Twitter is a little absurd. As for Neda Soltan, she was being attended to by a doctor while the person videotaping was there. What more could have been done?

As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad that someone was there to videotape it and let the outside world know about it — just as I’m glad someone was there to record Nguyen Van Lem being shot in the head, or Phai Thi Kim Phuc (who now lives in Toronto) running down the road in Vietnam after having her clothes burned off by a napalm attack. Would Carr rather that no one had videotaped Neda’s senseless death at all? It’s one thing to argue that tweeting from Iran was useless, but Neda’s death very clearly galvanized protests in that country, and international criticism. And while Tearah Moore posting observations to Twitter might not have accomplished much either, it easily could have, had events gone in a different direction.

The fact that Moore made mistakes, meanwhile, is also to be expected – she was probably listening to the same broadcasts we all were, which quoted military officials as saying the shooter had been killed. Is that her fault? Dozens of TV stations, radio stations and newspaper websites reported the exact same thing. The same criticisms were made during the Mumbai attacks, when the wrong hotel was identified as being on fire. “Twitter is completely unreliable!” many people cried — but the mainstream media were just as unreliable, as they often are in such intense situations.

Whether social media turns us all into selfish voyeurs is a valuable question to ask, but I don’t think Carr has provided us with any examples that make that case. As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad people feel a compulsion to “report” things that are happening wherever they might be. That is a fundamentally journalistic impulse, and the more people who have it, the better off we will all be — even if we have to put up with errors and misunderstandings along the way. Suw Charman-Anderson has a good post on the topic as well, and feels Carr is attacking a straw man of his own creation. David Quigg has what I think is a smart take on Carr’s post as well, and so does Alex Howard (@digiphile).

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