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.