Journalist Citizens

Since my return from India I’ve given much thought to the role photographers and journalists play in world events—or, perhaps that’s not the scale I’m considering—what is our role and responsibility to the individuals we document? This is not a novel question; it’s standard in the curriculum of J-schools everywhere and is (or should be) a primary consideration for any journalist of integrity. However, I’m trying to codify it for myself and make clear what I’m attempting when working with vulnerable people.
I’ve had a profitable discussion with David Wells over the past weeks; David is a former teacher of mine and experienced photojournalist. I suggested we might compose a code of conduct—a sort of Hippocratic Oath for photographers (again, not an original idea but one that might be revisited as the nature of journalism changes). I think it important that, as we travel into communities where we have free reign to work (often without thorough question of our motives), we clearly state our purpose and intent. We may not always fulfil that ideal but neither can a physician always save his or her patient. Journalism and medicine involve a careful balance of skill and serendipity; both carry the opportunity for healing as well as harm.

I celebrate the opportunities we have now for citizen journalism; the tools at hand take us far beyond traditional ‘gatekeeper controlled’ news. When someone with a pocket digital camera and a laptop can bring out hidden truths of a repressive government we’ve crossed a significant threshold. However, I wonder if we should not retain something of the old model—whether we are diffusing too much the role that a person defined as a journalist has to play in society. Everyone should be involved in the exchange of information and engage in the progress of their community, government, and so on; we have the ability to speak directly in a public arena without (generally) sanction or review by our peers. I just hope that, in the mêlée, the voices of Journalist Citizens are not forgotten. There is still room and need for people who are set apart for the specific task of digging deep and bringing out a story held to vigourous scrutiny. We seem to be loosing the ability to discern between citizens who express what they experience and journalists who write about the experiences of others; I speak from an American perspective watching and reading our news here. We readily accept the ‘journalism’ of a random weblogger (again, not to denigrate the medium; there are wonderful and thorough writers on the web) and simultaneously receive the rants of television anchors who speak without the backing of research or fact checking. Whether the medium is new and fluid or ‘old and respected’, truth suffers on both accounts. (Once again, this is an ongoing discussion all over the web and among journalists.)

To my point; I wonder if there is a place for a group of people set apart as far as possible from editorial coercion and political influence as possible. One of the issues photographers and journalists have in the field is their county of citizenship. There is always a political element if one is ‘an American photographer’ or an ‘Israeli journalist’; what if a neutral state offered a special conditional citizenship to journalists (in that, instead of swearing only allegiance to that state, the journalists would swear to uphold a strongly reasoned commitment to truth and transparency)?

Susan Garde Pettie (who will, I believe, be First Minister of Scotland one day) forwarded me a link concerning the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. IMMI is an attempt to build a haven for journalism by writing best practices for free speech into Icelandic law. Iceland would become a physical repository for free speech via the internet to put information beyond the reach of repressive governments and corrupt corporations (who might otherwise shut down the servers of bloggers and newspapers in their own countries).

Birgitta Jónsdóttir is the Icelandic MP behind this initiative; I e-mailed her yesterday and suggested that Iceland develop a journalism degree program that incorporates the best practices of investigative integrity. After completing the program, the graduates would apply for citizenship (in the same spirit that the British and other countries offer a two year work visa to graduates; it draws students into the country and builds the overall skill pool). The whole process would be open and the ‘Icelandic Journalist’ passport would become a recognised mark worldwide. (It would need to be an actual citizenship as well; I don’t know if people would necessarily renounce citizenship of their home countries; but it would need to be legitimately recognised as full citizenship so people could be linked to the international conventions on citizen protection akin to what they are attempting with the press haven.) Birgitta responded this morning with some positive remarks, so we shall see where that goes. (By the way, Icelandic MP’s e-mail contacts are published on the web and they use their first names in the addresses; access, transparency, and a bit of humanity.)

Addendum: there are, no doubt, conventions that limit the scope of what states can confer upon citizens—but what if the Journalist Citizen had the same level of recognition as an official or diplomatic passport holder? The bearer could apply for ‘journalistic immunity’ in the same sense that diplomats may have immunity to prosecution.