Citizen Can?

SINCE July debate has broken out, sometimes fiercely, about "citizen journalism". The National Union of Journalists is moving to propose a Code of Practice to protect the interests of all involved. And on Monday its London Freelance Branch is holding a debate, open to all journalists, on the issues. It's at 7pm at Friends' House, Euston Road. Mike Holderness reports on the discussion so far.

Activists in the National Union of Journalists would rather talk about "citizen witnesses" - the whole point, after all, is that we're increasingly dealing with reports and pictures from people who are not journalists. And that diversity of input, as all the journalists I've asked can agree, is no bad thing - so long as the interests of journalism, of journalists and perhaps particularly of the witnesses themselves are protected. And that's the point of developing a Code.

London Freelance Branch has invited representatives of the BBC, of Scoopt - the agency that sets out to secure fair financial deals for citizens' photos - and of course experienced journalists involved in the debate.

The questions are many. Important events are inconsiderate enough to happen when no professionals are present. Technology means that there are hundreds of thousands of people who can send in their images and texts from events that would otherwise be covered at second and third hand. In any case, different views on the news are often welcome. But it cannot be long before the pressure of 24-hour coverage gets amateur reports that are, let's say, differently true on air or on the web.

And what happens then? Read the small print and you'll discover, for example, that both the BBC and Scoopt want a waiver of moral rights - which means they claim the unrestricted right to change citizen witnesses' submissions. They also want the witness to bear the costs of any court case arising from the - possibly altered - report or photo. These are unreasonable demands. With luck, once editors are alerted to the meaning of the boilerplate contracts their lawyers have supplied, they'll change them. Until then, maybe journalists should be warning other citizens: "send your photo and lose your house".

People could lose more that. Other organisations have issued appeals for witnesses that risk encouraging amateurs to run toward danger. Shouldn't they add a photo of what a sheet of glass falling from the twentieth floor can do?

These questions can be sorted out, and that's what the Branch debate and the eventual Code aim to do. Get it right, and journalism can be the richer. Get it wrong, and we're definitely all in trouble.

Last modified: 12 November 2005 - © 2005 contributors
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