Would you trust a citizen plumber to work on your toilet?

That’s one of the questions, referring to citizen journalism, that Edmonton Journal columnist Dan Barnes asked last week in this all-over-the-place piece. Was it rhetorical? Maybe, but I’ll bite anyway.

I know you’re not supposed to answer a question with a question, but I wonder what Dan meant by citizen plumber? Did he mean someone whose experience with plumbing is limited to some fancy new tool, or did he mean someone who simply lacks the license but has all of the necessary interest, skills, experience, and knowledge of a plumber-minus-the-citizen? My point is that its easy to misuse the label “citizen journalist” and to paint with too broad a brush.

It’s also really difficult to define. I wonder how Dan defines it? Maybe he thinks I’m a citizen journalist because my platform is this blog. But what about “mainstream journalists” who have blogs – aren’t they also citizen journalists then? If we can’t define it with the tools or platform, maybe we can define it with the kinds of content the citizen journalist produces. But there again, what’s the distinction between someone who rewrites a press release for a newspaper and someone who does an interview for a blog post? Is the only distinction the employer?

Why do we need that label anyway? What would happen if we dropped the term “citizen” and just called them journalists? Both tell stories, after all.

Dan Barnes and I would be on the same level, that’s what would happen. And my guess is that Dan wouldn’t be able to deal with that.

It’s worth mentioning that Dan’s argument is not new or unique. Though at least one other “mainstream journalist” has used the term “citizen plumber” before, the straw man is most often made with a “citizen neurosurgeon” or a “citizen dentist”. As always, Techdirt does a nice job of dealing with that:

Most people seem to recognize the basic difference between reporting on something and cutting into someone’s brain. And, many people also recognize that most reporters themselves are often not experts in the field they’re reporting on — and what participatory journalism and the internet enable is the ability for actual experts on the topic to take part in the discussion and reporting as well.

I don’t think it’s that difficult to recognize the differences between a plumber and a journalist, either. There are only so many ways to fix a leaky pipe, but a myriad of ways to interpret and write about something, for instance.

The reality is that journalism is not a constant, it’s not static or unchanging. Like most things worth caring about, journalism is constantly evolving, and whether Dan likes it or not, journalists who don’t work for the mainstream media are here to stay.

I can understand why we’d be hesitant to call the first guy I described above a plumber, but it’s pretty clear that the second one is a plumber. If we call them both just plumbers, do we risk cheapening the term? If we call them both “citizen plumbers”, do we risk preventing the second guy from making an impact?

What if the new tool that plumber #1 uses turns out to be a plunger, or Drano, all of a sudden enabling millions of people to deal with simple plumbing problems on their own, and thereby freeing up the non-citizen plumbers to focus on more difficult problems? That’s the real risk, in my opinion, with putting too much weight behind a label. We risk overlooking the significant contributions that both can make to plumbing overall.

Still not convinced Dan? Maybe you’ll enjoy this story (from way back in 2006!):

Witness the power of the humble tools of citizens’ media. A citizen dentist used them to become a journalist. He used them to give the world a unique and human perspective on a story where too much is unreported. He gained an appreciative and supportive audience around the world. He helped give birth to a new medium. And journalism is all the better for it.

Give a citizen dentist a blog and he’ll change the world? Maybe not, but he might just impact journalism for the better.

11 thoughts on “Would you trust a citizen plumber to work on your toilet?

  1. Mack, I also felt hesitant to bite, but did so in the comments on Barnes’ column. (After I tweeted and got them to turn on the comments.)

    I too asked what Barnes meant by citizen journalist. I don’t think he knows.

    The debate about where we get our news from has evolved past labels. If we just search out, and support, good journalism, blogging, writing, video, stories, opinion, content it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or what it’s called.

  2. Under NAFTA, journalism is not define as a profession. Anybody who picks up a pen and can find a publisher is a journalist.

    Doesn’t make them a good journalist. But they’re a journalist.

    That doesn’t mean that they can get a press pass to the Oilers or the Fringe. But it does mean they can be sued for any defamatory or libelous comments made, just like a real professional journalist can.

  3. Labels are so important. I have spent half of my working career training citizen journalists. Journalists from independent news organizations and those without “official” media credentials will often not have their phone calls returned, or will be perceived as having some sort of agenda based on the fact that they are working for an independent news organization and so treated differently by those they interview and readers.
    I see a lot of the same struggles that citizen journalists and bloggers face independent journalists have struggled against for years.

    I do agree with your point about skills. As someone who has trained citizen journalists and designed manuals, guides and workshops for citizens interested in producing media, all it takes is the right training and attitude. It’s not about employers or medium, it’s about skills and output.

  4. I think there’s this perception that because anyone can start up their own blog and be a “citizen journalist”, you can’t trust any of them because of the inevitable number of hacks out there. Dan Barnes seems to be advocating the position that you must go to school and get that piece of paper that supposedly qualifies you to be a journalist (or a plumber or whatever). Now obviously you want someone qualified to fix your pipes or operate on your brain, but in the realm of journalism, I would argue that experience counts for much more than school degrees.

    Many people could be considered journalists based on their knowledge of a certain area and their effective ability to report on it. By that definition, many “official” journalists – the kind that write for “real” newspapers (whatever those are) – aren’t really journalists themselves. Or maybe they’re just bad ones.

    Then again, Barnes could be talking about something completely different. It’s been a while since I read such a meandering, seemingly pointless rant. One could argue his ultimate point was that wealthy individuals are bad and we should knock them down and disregard their ideas on principle.

  5. I am really sick of the ‘citizen plumber’, ‘citizen doctor’, ‘citizen neurosurgeon’ argument. It’s been used for years, and it’s not a very good argument. In fact, I would hope my mainstream journalist brethren would be a little more creative. After all, I would trust a ‘citizen plumber’! If that person has gained my trust and I think they’d be a good person to fix my plumbing issues, then come on over! I’ll buy you a beer for your troubles.

    A ‘citizen neurosurgeon’? Well… I think that’s going a wee bit far. I doubt anyone thinks the can just pick up some tools and operate.

    If a blogger or citizen journalist can do the job right, and remains trustworthy, accurate, and provide quality content – why are we fighting them? Why aren’t we working together to provide the public with news from their city?

    Are we threatened by citizen journalists/bloggers? I don’t understand it. I don’t know why this argument continues… Not all journalists do their job properly, and not all bloggers are journalists – so why not focus on who does their job well, regardless of which company they work for, or whether or not they get a paycheque for their efforts.

  6. Good read Mack, thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Truth be told, I think journalism, as well as many other traditional institutions are having a tough time adjusting to the new media environment they find themselves in.

    And as you say, why limit yourself to just a title or an organization to qualify you as a credible source of information? The greatest part of the Internet is that everyone can have a voice. Now whether that voice is that of a cretin or a credible source is up to the reader to decide.

    And therein lies the power of the internet — it is a self regulating body. We, as the readers, vote with our hits and visits. So while you get the occasional misleading or uninformed blog, websites like Engadget or Gizmodo, that offer excellent news coverage (albeit only on tech stories) got their start on the web. And since then, have risen to “established” status that are exactly like traditional news sources sans the actual printed copy.

    So yes, while I could watch the news, or read the tech column in the paper, I find that the sources online are much quicker at covering the issue, and much more responsive with said coverage. Meanwhile, I think I’d rather pick up a WSJ, NYT, or Time Magazine to get the latest on American Politics.

    It’s a consumer market now, and Mr. Barnes would do well to understand that it’s not about who you work for, or where you write it that will get the readers, but about what you write, and how useful your writing is.

  7. Bad question on his part, as I wouldn’t/don’t *trust* any *professional* plumbers not to screw up fixing my toilet. So by that logic, I shouldn’t trust a *professional* journalist? And at a local level (particularly with TV news), I don’t, as I’ve been on the receiving end of them making mistakes (covering Nexopia)

  8. In our new book, “Handbook for Citizen Journalists” we assert that there are three kinds of citizen journlaists: accidental citizen journalist (those who simply happen upon an event and either photograph it or tweet it, etc.), advocacy citizen journalists (lots of bloggers come under this category), and citizen journalists (serious, trained reporters). I’ve been an ACCIDENTAL PLUMBER when my toilet overflowed. I’ve been an ADVOCACY PLUMBER when I taught my children to FLUSH THE TOILET. I’ve been a CITIZEN PLUMBER when I helped my neighbor install a new water heater.

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