In the eyes of the mainstream media, citizen journalists are placed at the bottom of the rung — barely qualified enough to be journalists. But citizen journalists offer much more talent and gusto than they are recognized for, one such example being Huffington Post blogger Mayhill Fowler.
During the 2008 presidential debate, when Democratic presidential nominees Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were caught in a heated race for the nomination, Fowler joined other citizen journalists across the country for Huffington Post’s new endeavor, Off the Beat. It was during this time that Fowler broke two of the most controversial and provocative stories: Obama’s comments saying job losses caused small-town Americans to become bitter and “cling to guns or religion,” and Bill Clinton’s steamy vitriol of Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum.
In both instances, Fowler’s subjects were unaware of her position as a journalist, which perhaps allowed them to let their guard down for a brief moment, a moment that ultimately led to controversial comments and subsequent backlash against her. However, the question of whether what Fowler did was unethical is irrelevant. Perhaps prefacing Purdue’s Vanity Fair piece as a “hatchet job” was slightly sensational and unwarranted, but in the grand scheme of journalism, it’s not a question of ethics in this situation, but a question that looks at the influential and valid role of citizen journalism in today’s media landscape.
Citizen journalists are often looked down upon by their mainstream media “superiors,” but citizen journalists can be just as skilled as them, and the presumption that they are unskilled and unprofessional is simply ridiculous. Just because citizen journalists are acting on their own accord and have no ties to a professional media outlet does not negate nor disqualify their position as a journalist. Fowler’s coverage during the 2008 campaign just shows the ways in which citizen journalists can break meaningful news stories, even without the fancy press pass. And in this case, the lack of a press pass helped Fowler in her reporting and getting raw quotes from Obama and Clinton.
The idea that there is such a thing as a “journalist” and a “citizen journalist” only creates a false dichotomy between what is perceived as “good” journalism” and “bad” journalism. But there is a falseness in equating citizen journalism to bad journalism, as these reporters can be just as talented and passionate about the field without having any close ties to a specific media outlet. The affiliation or non-affiliation to a news outlet should be the only distinction between citizen journalists and media-affiliated journalists. Instead of continuing to perpetuate the narrative of the rugged and untalented citizen journalist, mainstream media should embrace their fellow reporters and realize that a professional journalist can exist and thrive without tying oneself down to a traditional news outlet.