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How did the NUJ get to this?

There’s a jolly old scrap going on around the NUJ’s approach to citizen journalists. I’d like to tackle it from a newish angle, but first — for those new to the story, and for those familiar with it but who can’t resist car crashes in slow-mo action replay — a recap.

Recap

“Citizen journalists” is the clunky name given to non-professional people who publish material on news events — by blogging about them, by snapping them on their cameraphones and sending them into newspapers or websites, and so on. Bloggers have forced stories to be retracted from CBS News, cameraphone pictures added drama to the events of 7/7, and amateur video footage was broadcast in the early hours of the Buncefield oil fire. Professional journalists and media managers are wondering how this phenomenon will affect their jobs and their businesses. Most are trying to embrace it one way or another.

Into this debate walks the National Union of Journalists. Following a sadly unremarkable roundtable discussion of citizen journalism they have published a “code of conduct” of how to deal with citizen journalists. Or, as they have chosen to call them, “witness contributors”. Card-carrying NUJ member Neil McIntosh calls it “witless”. Emily Bell says it’s impractical. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis calls it “braindead”. You couldn’t possibly guess what Simon Waldman thinks.

How did they get to this?

So while Emily and Neil and Jeff are tearing apart the details, I’m much more interested in what went on beforehand. My questions are: how on earth did the NUJ devise this document? Who did they talk to? How did they check it? Who is this code intended for?

If you’re going to stand on a podium and shout then you need to be pretty sure about your message, otherwise you risk being pelted with rotten tomatoes. Or flamed by industry experts, as in this case. You need to talk to people on all sides, get their point of view and frame your message accordingly. Neil points out that “The NUJ’s top bods are experienced negotiators”, and good negotiation requires careful listening and repositioning.

The way it should work in this situation is for NUJ people to talk to journalists (which I’m sure they’ve done), including those involved in online publishing (which plausibly they haven’t), to editors and those representing citizen journalists (such as Scoopt). They’d talk to the people who put together the Telegraph’s much-criticised Snap and Send programme, who created the unmoderated comments system for BBC news, who chose to use the amateur video footage of Buncefield, and so on.

The NUJ might — and this is a big might — actually talk to some so-called citizen journalists. But that may be difficult since no-one can actually agree if such people exist (as opposed to people who happen to have sent in a photo once or twice). Although if they don’t then that in itself would serve to educate them.

And what good would all this talking-around-the-edges do? For one thing, they’d realise that they wouldn’t be taken very seriously if they started using the phrase “witness contributors”. For another, they’d find that they need to define what such a thing actually was. For a third, they’d find that directing a voluntary code of conduct at (presumably) organisations who aren’t themselves their members might not be useful, causing them to recast their presentation. For a fourth, they might like to reconsider a phrase such as

commitments to the integrity and reliability of material and the safety of bona fide newsgatherers may be challenged and compromised by the use of “witness contributions”.

and realise it’s something that needs to justified rather than stated as an axiom.

And that’s before we get into the detail, which Emily, Jeff and Neil cover in, well, detail.

Unfortunately they seem to have done none of this careful background work and have therefore set back whatever cause they might be trying to promote. It makes me think that if you’re going to come out with all guns blazing, do first make sure you’re facing in the right direction.

It’s a shame for the NUJ. It’s shame for their aims. But it does allow the media organisations to ignore them a bit longer and get on with engaging with what’s happening.

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