Does Posting Things to Twitter Make You a Journalist?

There’s been a lot of discussion about what the U.S. military strike on Osama bin Laden’s compound says about the state of the media today, and the latest debate is whether Sohaib Athar — the Pakistani resident who live-tweeted the raid — is a journalist or not. SF Weekly blogger Dan Mitchell is pretty convinced that he is not, but there are some pretty powerful arguments to be made that he is — that Athar represents a new kind of quasi-journalist, or what some call a “citizen journalist.” The bottom line is that journalism as we know it has been unbundled into its component parts, and virtually anyone has the ability to perform some or all of those functions now. We are still grappling with what that means, but it’s happening.

Mitchell seems particularly incensed that Steve Myers from the Poynter Institute refers to Athar — a computer programmer living in Abbottabad, whose Twitter handle is @ReallyVirtual — as a citizen journalist. Mitchell (whose bio notes he has worked for “nearly every media organization in the world” including Fortune (s twx), The New York Times (s nyt) and National Public Radio) says that “wondering on Twitter why there are helicopters flying around your neighborhood isn’t journalism.”

That much is true, otherwise virtually everyone who posts something to Twitter would be a de facto journalist — and not even the most utopian social-media advocate would argue that, I don’t think. But as Steve Myers points out in an exhaustively well-researched response to Mitchell at the Poynter website, there are a number of very good reasons for describing Athar as a journalist, and for describing what he did as journalism. Because Athar did far more than just idly wonder what those noises were near his house, and he did far more than just describe them. As Myers notes, he also:

  • Answered questions from others seeking information.
  • Acted as a conduit for information, sharing what he knew as he learned it.
  • Sought reports from news sources and shared them.
  • Traded what he had heard with others to figure out what was going on.
  • Analyzed what was happening.

In many ways, what Athar did was pretty much the same thing that NPR digital strategist and prolific Twitter user Andy Carvin has been doing in reporting on the protests and revolutions in Egypt and Libya — a process that also involves curating other people’s tweets, reporting from sources, verifying and authenticating information, and so on. Although Athar may only have done it once, and the depth of his reporting isn’t even in the same category, what he did is functionally identical. It’s not that different from what freelance “stringers” for wire services used to do, except they can now publish themselves (Athar has since posted video of the bin Laden compound on fire).

In a comment on the Poynter piece, Carvin calls what Athar did “random acts of journalism,” which is as good a phrase as any. And Jeff Sonderman, the managing editor of Washington local-news site notes in a comment that journalism isn’t actually even a profession per se, since those who practice it don’t have to be approved by any kind of official body, or show that they have any kind of specific training from an accredited institution; they just do it. That’s part of what makes it so difficult to define.

Did Athar have the resources at hand that Wolf Blitzer on CNN had, to analyze and interpret the attack, or the 3-D virtual displays to replay the raid, or the sources at the White House to describe the Navy SEALs who carried it out? Obviously not. But as a resident of the area, he had plenty of useful information about that part of Pakistan — enough to correct some of the errors that many other traditional journalists and media sources were reporting, as Myers points out in his piece.

Whatever you want to call it, collecting and reporting information, putting it in context and then distributing that to others is journalism, whether Athar went to Columbia or not.

Thanks to Twitter and the power of the network, the Pakistani IT consultant was a part of the new ecosystem of news, just as Janis Krums was when he posted a photo of Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson (s lcc), and just as protesters in Tahrir Square have been as they report on events there. Is that all journalism consists of? Of course not. All those facts and reports need to be understood in context, and made part of a larger picture. Even Athar didn’t know that what he was reporting was connected to Osama bin Laden (although he started to suspect when he heard about Obama’s speech).

But the more that people like Dan Mitchell try to define the concept of journalism narrowly enough to exclude people like Athar, the more they reduce the actual practice of journalism. If you make the argument that what the Pakistani IT consultant did was simply “reporting” but not actual journalism, then you instantly discredit all the battlefield and foreign reporting that consists of virtually the exact same kind of behavior.

Why don’t journalists want to admit that others can now perform many of the same functions they do, given these new tools? Because that means that anyone with a Twitter account or a blog is competition. But that is the reality — and journalists of all kinds had better start getting used to the idea, instead of trying to define their way out of it.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and Yan Arief