If Paul Carr meant to start a debate, he succeeded. Over the weekend, Carr, who writes for Techcrunch, penned a criticism of citizen journalists at the Fort Hood shootings that picked up quite a bit of traction online.
Aside from his many Twitter mentions, other social media critics responded to his critique and while most felt his post didn’t have the substance to sustain a convincing argument, Megan Garber writing at the Columbia Journalism Review was more generous, arguing that Carr’s post was valuable — if only because it roused thoughtful conversation about the genre of citizen journalism.
Carr’s thesis throws a blanket statement over the issue, which is what makes it so difficult to support: “…after two weeks of me suggesting that social media might not be an unequivocally Good Thing in terms of privacy and human decency, the news has delivered the perfect example to support my view.” (Links in quotes original to Carr).
As David Quigg notes, who really ever argued that social media was an “unequivocally Good Thing”?
Regardless, the example Carr cites as evidence of social media’s downfall is Tearah Moore, a soldier who recently returned from Iraq and is now based at Fort Hood. Moore is also a Twitter user and during last Thursday’s mass shootings posted updates including a picture from within a hospital at the base. Carr includes these selections from Moore’s Twitter feed:
[T]hey just brought a CART full of boxes w/transplant parts in them. Not good not good. #fthood
Ok we just saw a soldier on a stretcher w/2 armed guards walking by He didnt look like he was in great condition.
Maj Malik A Hassan. He shouldn’t have died. He should be in the worst suffering of his life. It’s too fair for him to just die. Bastard!
A FUCKING MAJOR? Are you kidding me? A MAJ! For those of ut hat don’t know, Army MAJ have pretty serious rank. Dick
Someone just started shooting in Commanche 4 which is on post housing. What are these people thinking?!?
The poor guy that got shot in the balls http://twitpic.com/oejh5
Moore’s Twitter profile has since been set to private, so we can’t independently verify her tweets. But it’s fair to assume that Carr reprinted them correctly, as the link to the image is still active.
Carr complains that her tweets propogated misinformation that was then picked up by mainstream media outlets.
But of deeper ethical concern, Carr interprets Moore’s Twittering behavior as evidence that “the ‘real time web’ is turning all of us into inhuman egotists.” He was particularly disturbed by Moore’s cell-phone image — not the content, but the act. He admonishes Moore, and one can presume from the title of his post, other citizen journalists for documenting rather than intervening. And he draws this argument out, criticizing the photographer who captured Neda Agha Soltan‘s death during this summer’s Iranian protests.
He comes to this conclusion: “Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.” (Link in quote original to Carr.)
Soon after Carr’s post, responses began pouring in from other social media critics, most of who found serious flaws with his argument.
As mentioned earlier, Huffington Post blogger and former reporter for The (Tacoma) News Tribune, David Quigg, weighed in on his personal blog, Ignorance + Curiosity, where he questioned the idea that social media has fundamentally changed human behavior or ethics. He unravels Carr’s argument with historical examples that show we’ve been “looking on” for decades, at least as far back as 1964, when Kitty Genovese was left on her own as “Bystanders did nothing about the screaming altercation that ended in her rape and murder.”
Suw Charman-Anderson, writing on her joint blog, Strange Attractor, tears at Carr’s premise. She finds no evidence that Moore’s Twitter messages were influential on mainstream media reporting of the Fort Hood incident, and those examples she does find are careful with their attribution. Along with The Business Insider, which published Moore’s photo, Charman-Anderson writes, “Further digging does reveal that the Houston Chronicle in Texas ran her photo (no. 52) with the caption ‘MissTearah submitted this photo to Twitter purporting to be from the emergency room in Killee.’ Australia’s Herald Sun does the same but uses the caption ‘This Twitter image from user misstearah, claims to be from inside a hospital near the shooting.’” (Links in quotes original to Charman-Anderson.)
Charman-Anderson’s critique also raises questions about calling Moore a “citizen journalist” — though not overtly. It’s implicit as she shows that Moore’s tweets mainly stayed within her small group of less than 100 followers. Just because someone’s commentary is published on a public site (Moore’s profile was open at the time of the shooting and has since been made private), doesn’t mean that she thinks of herself as a reporter. It’s not easy to classify citizen journalists, but simply using social media platforms doesn’t necessitate the title.
The Globe and Mail communities editor, Mathew Ingram, weighed in on his blog and said he saw value in documenting atrocities, even if it raises tough ethical questions. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad that someone was there to videotape it and let the outside world know about it,” Ingram writes, “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.” (Links in quotes original to Ingram.)
Charman-Anderson had similar thoughts about the Neda video. “However harrowing it is to watch a young woman die, there are times when such scenes have to be captured and relayed to the world, to illustrate the appalling conditions and repression that people are suffering.”
Nearly all of these critics also pointed out that the ethical issue of whether a journalist should document or intervene has been around for ages and can’t honestly be attributed to changing mediums.
While most commentators saw flaws in Carr’s argument, one response in particular voiced appreciation for his ideas (if not the execution). Megan Garber at the Columbia Journalism Review provided a careful critique of Carr’s post. She looks past the troublesome issues that bothered other critics and finds value in the provocative nature of his piece, specifically because it raises questions about the vague genre called “citizen journalism.”
Garber quickly dismisses Carr’s more sweeping pronouncements, homing in on what she sees as the kernels of truth nestled beneath the hyperbole. “While he frames his argument in terms of ‘humanity’ as opposed to ‘ego,’ what he’s hinting at is a broader anxiety common among those who express concerns about citizen journalism: the recognition that ‘human decency,’ in the practice of that journalism, locates itself not within an external authority structure, but rather within the subjectivity of the practitioner. And subjective ethics are, strictly speaking, not ethics at all.”
But Garber isn’t out to trash citizen journalists; she’s simply trying to find value in Carr’s muddier thinking. While there may not be a professional ethical code guiding citizen journalists, there is a social code that could, Garber believes, act in a similar fashion. But she’s not ready to proclaim the two equal — that is up to those who participate in the as-yet-undefined arena of citizen journalism.
“The question here is whether group-mediated reputational pressures will eventually take the place of group-mandated authority structures—and, if so, what will be gained and lost,” Garber writes. “The answer will not depend on ‘citizen journalism’ as an institution, or on the platforms that facilitate it. It will depend on citizen journalists themselves—and on what the word ‘journalism,’ finally, means to them.”
To read Paul Carr’s original post, visit Techcrunch.
You can also hear Carr talking about citizen journalism with Jeff Jarvis on the Brian Lehrer Show.