12/3/12

The Power and Purpose of Citizen Journalists: The Baltimore SWAT Standoff and the Belize Mystery Surrounding John McAfee as Two Examples of Why We Need Citizen Journalists

Citizen journalism may not be respected by traditionally educated and trained journalists, but citizen journalists sure seem to be making lots of headway in reporting news via the web.

I've been watching and reading citizen journalism for awhile now, with growing respect.  Why?  Well, because some people are doing this at the risk of their lives - like citizen journalist Rami Ahmad Al-Sayed who died when he was only 27 years old, leaving behind a wife and young daughter, in order to spread the word over the internet about the military assault he was witnessing first hand in Homs, Syria.

Critics snub the idea of citizen journalists for various reasons:  first, their work does not reach the same level of quality as the professional journalist.  They are amateurs.   Second, citizen journalists cannot be trusted to be objective.  They are biased.  Third, citizen journalists aren't regulated - they have no set of rules or ethical codes imposed upon them as do members of the main stream media.  They are rogues.  

I understand that professionals who have studied in their field for years and thereafter dedicated years of their lives to journalism as a career path aren't too happy with these interlopers.  As an attorney who has seen the practice of law change to allow non-lawyers to practice law in some ways, I get it.

However, when it comes to citizen journalists, I don't care.

I don't trust the main stream media (MSM) much these days -- for one thing, the same finger pointing that is made against citizen journalists has been made much too often against members of the Fourth Estate in recent years for me to blindly trust today's news media.

What?  If you want to delve more into the sad failures of modern, professional journalism then I suggest you check out Joseph Campbell's 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism - which you can read for free at Google Books (at least you could when I typed this).  Or read the witty column in today's Gawker by Hamilton Nolan, "Mainstream Media Attack Dogs Think We're Asking Too Many Questions About Orange Pie."  It pretty much sums things up.

There's room in my world for both types of journalism, and maybe that's how things should be.  Here are two examples of citizen journalists blogging online that I've been following this week.

The Baltimore SWAT Standoff Blogger

Frank James MacArthur considers himself to be a citizen journalist when he isn't driving a cab up in Baltimore and he writes a blog called "The Baltimore Spectator."  Recently, after MacArthur didn't show in court for a violation of probation hearing on an old weapons charge, the police showed up at his house to issue a warrant.

MacArthur didn't cooperate, and it turned into a five hour standoff.  SWAT was called, but things ended peacefully at 11 pm which MacArthur stated that he intended to coordinate with the evening television news.

Now, sure, MacArthur may have done some of this in order to spotlight his citizen journalist site.  However, MacArthur also had a serious distrust of local law enforcement and chronicled the events as they transpired on the web for what he viewed as his own self-protection.

Belize Murder Investigation and The Mysterious John McAfee

Meanwhile, for a few weeks now the founder of a popular computer security software company, John McAfee, remains at large even though there were reports earlier today that he had been arrested at the Belize-Mexico border.  John McAfee has been blogging his story on the internet as he remains out of the hands of Belize police who are seeking custody of Mr. McAfee as a person of interest in the murder of McAfee's next-door neighbor.  McAfee's blog is "Who is McAfee?"

John McAfee is blogging about his successes in evading capture by the local authorities as well as his concerns that if he is taken by Belize police he will be harmed or killed - and this continuing story is making national news basically because of McAfee's own reporting of events thus far.

Belize police officials are calling McAfee "paranoid."  John McAfee's blog posts, however, don't seem to be the rambling, irrational posts of someone who is mentally ill.  His position is that he believed that if he had peacefully cooperated with police at the get-go, he might be killed.

I believe that blogging is important, but never more so than in situations like this, where individual citizens are sharing their stories - as they happen - with the public at large.  Maybe they aren't the most objective reports; maybe they aren't written as well as they could be; and maybe there's no set of rules or guidelines applicable to their work.

However, in both of these blogging stories by citizen journalists, you have first-hand accounts of what local law enforcement is doing, or not doing, together with the interpretation of those events by the suspect of that police power action. 

I want to read this.  I think lots of people do. I think we need the citizen journalist and I hope that citizen journalism becomes more respected, and protected, over time.    

Citizen journalists blogging on the internet (and I include micro-blogging at Twitter) bring information  to the reader that professional journalists don't provide.  Perhaps they can't provide it, I'll have to ponder that one.

As for the expansion of the police power through technological advances, and how privacy rights are endangered today and Big Brother scenarios are rapidly becoming reality, I'll write about that on my opinion blog soon enough.

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