By now most of us know the news about what happened in Ferguson, MO last night. And if you’re a journalist, you probably heard about the arrest of two reporters: Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post.
Publications and professional news organizations are out in force condemning the reporter arrests, and rightfully so. Here’s a few that I’ve found:
- Society for Professional Journalists
- Radio Television Digital News Association
- Washington Post editor Martin Baron
- HuffPost roundup of criticisms on Twitter
- American Society of Newspaper Editors
Most of these statements have something in common. They defend the rights of the professional press quite well but don’t mention citizen journalists. ASNE’s statement gets the closest when talking about the public’s First Amendment rights being the same as those of journalists, but the reaction from the professionals doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge the critical role citizens play in news gathering in 2014.
The citizen aspect matters. Ferguson police tried (illegally) to stop citizens from filming and taking photos from the scene last night. These were everyday people documenting an ongoing crisis for those of us watching on social media. As the police were arresting professional reporters, citizens were our ongoing eyes and ears. At one point, the only live feed we had was from a citizen’s camera. And then there’s Antonio French, who has been a star in the days since Michael Brown’s tragic shooting. These citizens have played a vital role in telling Brown’s story, uncovering untold details or standing in for media facing restricted access.
I get it. Professional organizations serve professional members. But nowadays, even the pros rely on citizens for tweets, Instagrams, Vines and other information that go into building the news. We should acknowledge their value by standing up for them and providing them cover. We can’t afford to define journalism too narrowly now, and we can’t abandon them once we’ve used them for their content. Professionals enjoy the support of editors and corporate lawyers, but these brave citizens have no such benefit.
Their rights are ours. Let’s advocate as fiercely for them as we do ourselves.
UPDATE: The president of AEJMC, the main journalism education organization in my field, came out with a statement similar to those above. I am particularly disappointed by this one because AEJMC is a big-tent organization that brings together scholarship from all areas of journalism, broadly defined, including professional and participatory forms of journalism. That we’re still thinking about journalism in terms of career and jobs makes me sad. These citizens deserve our support.