The rise (and complications) of citizen photojournalism

Considering how easy it is to manipulate a photo, should photos of news events taken by regular people be considered journalism? Jasmine Pazzano explains how two Canadian newspapers are tentatively embracing the citizen cellphone journalist.

G20 by Neeraj Singh

Neeraj Singh’s curiosity took him outside of his office to Bay Street in Toronto. With his digital camera, he snapped pictures of what he calls the “fortress” of police officers pushing through the crowd. In the midst of gasmasks and booming voices of rebellion, his excitement grew. He found himself in a swarm of people with digital cameras of their own, each trying to snap pictures of the G20 Summit protests last June. Singh posted his pictures on his blog later that day to tell the world about what he witnessed.

“Our world is the most snap-happy generation in history,” said James Wallace, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun, one that has become wired together with digital photography, cellphones and the internet. This has birthed the citizen photojournalist, a public spectator that uses a camera to tell her own stories.

Editors and photojournalists alike say citizen photojournalists have earned their place during spot news or dramatic situations when professionals cannot make the scene. For this reason, publications often rely on citizens’ work. Wallace picks the pictures that have the most impact, but he is not concerned with the photographer. “Who took the picture doesn’t matter,” he says. “Qualifications don’t really come into play unless it’s too blurry. As long as it tells the story, it’s a great picture.”

Technology has created this window of opportunity for the public, but it has also opened up photojournalism to a host of potential problems. Some journalists say dishonest work can take away from the credibility of the industry, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the ethics of photojournalism. There is also the threat that citizens will purposefully break the ethics of manipulation and privacy due to personal bias. Can they be labelled journalists if they are not contributing to the effort of truth?

What is a citizen photojournalist?

Wallace says there are two types of citizen photojournalists. “There are committed citizens who have a blog, take lots of pictures and are part of an online community conducting photojournalism,” he says. “Then you have people who happen to have a camera with them. These are drive-by citizen photojournalists. They take a picture because they think people should know about what’s happening.”

He says the difference between professional and citizen photojournalism is motivation. “Citizens do it out of commitment and interest or other personal reasons,” he says. “For professionals, it is their job.” The two are also separated by experience, he says. A professional is taught how to construct unbiased and accurate stories by following a code of ethics.

A new generation of photojournalists

Dennis Owen became photo editor of The Globe and Mail just after the paper finalized its photography-based redesign last August. He says technology has changed the public’s reaction to dramatic situations. “People used to stand there in shock, but now they take a picture,” he says. “Now we have potential access to people who can take a picture right then and there.”

Owen compares a modern photojournalist’s experience to that of one twenty years ago, saying that technology has revolutionized professionals’ work as well. “It was a huge technical challenge,” says Owen. He remembers working as a photojournalist in Asia during the 1980s and using a drum transmitter to send pictures back to Reuters headquarters in Canada. To print a photo on the other end, the negative had to be wound round a drum, and was rotated and scanned by a lamp and photo multiplier combined, according to Nikon Online. The image was then converted into an electric signal and sent. Now, it’s as easy as point, click, e-mail.

Owen says because the paper version of The Globe and Mail is mainly comprised of feature stories that include planned photos, the publication does not rely heavily on citizen photojournalism. “We use pictures that are most compelling and make people say, ‘Wow. That’s both great art and compelling.’”

Kevin Van Paassen, a photojournalist for The Globe and Mail, says that citizen photojournalists play an important role during dramatic news events. “People’s cellphones are omnipresent,” he says. “It’s all about being at the right place at the right time. There’s value in their photos and that’s why they’re used.”

During G20 preparations, Singh, 28, sat by the window in his office at a financial institution on Bay Street with a camera in hand. He would capture what he calls the “eerie atmosphere” of the preparations, as the streets that were normally bustling were now completely cleared. He says he had a great aerial view from his sixth-floor office window.

“At the riots, 90 per cent of the people there were watching or taking pictures, and 10 per cent were protestors,” says Singh. “It was kind of funny actually. You’d have such a better understanding of what happened by looking at pictures by regular people than the media,” he says, because citizens are not associated with any news network; they are merely taking pictures from a citizen’s point of view.  

Why they’re used

“With citizen photojournalists, the news media is better equipped to bring critical issues into the public realm for discussion,” said Wallace. Citizen work that came out of the G20 protests helped bring a more comprehensive view of the event, he said, because of the hundreds of different perspectives.

Some of the stories published in the Toronto Sun have been citizen-driven, Wallace notes. The January 2010 story about the public’s frustration with the Toronto Transit Commission was sparked by TTC rider Jason Wieler’s picture of a worker sleeping in a toll booth. The photo quickly became a much-needed face to a complex story. As a result, the Commission came under intense scrutiny. “It all started with pictures of people doing things they shouldn’t be,” Wallace says.
London Underground explosion by Adam Stacey
During the bombing of the London Underground in July 2005, citizens trapped inside the subway were the first to take pictures of the event. According to the BBC’s website, the network received around 1,000 photos just hours and even minutes after the event struck.

Owen says that most citizen photojournalism is of the aftermath of an event, which is what sets the Underground pictures apart from other citizen-taken pictures. “The amazing thing about those photos is that they were of the disaster itself,” he says of the pictures.


Citizen photojournalism opens up options for publications with its omnipresent nature. But technology has also created opportunities for the public to break basic ethics of photojournalism.

The Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen website says that with the emergence of “cell journalists,” there is no way to verify that a cell journalist’s product is an honest representation of reality as opposed to a distorted, outdated or biased image. The site says “Ethical problems faced by cell journalists include all the problems associated with photojournalism in general: the digital manipulation of images, privacy concerns and the use of graphic images.”

“Photojournalism is under attack because of the many cases of it being misused,” Owen said. “If pictures aren’t adding to the effort of truth, it damages the reputation of the paper and is worse than not having any pictures at all.” When evaluating citizen photojournalism during the editing process, the Globe’s Van Paassen is careful to look for telltale signs:  “You have to ask, has it been manipulated? Has a critical element been cropped out? Does it clearly represent what’s happening?” he said. “Fact is; they’re not journalists if they don’t adhere to the same ethical standards that the industry respects.”  

That’s the easy answer, although Owen notes that technology has become so advanced that editors cannot always tell which images have been deceptively changed. “An editor needs to make an educated guess, or you wouldn’t use it.”

Manipulating photos

(this is not) Sarah Palin

According to The Huffington Post, photos of Sarah Palin clad in a star-spangled bikini leaked onto the Internet shortly after John McCain selected her as his running mate in the 2008 election. The photos were deemed manipulated and is the work of a citizen using PhotoShop.

“Those photos were leery of authenticity,” Wallace says. “With professional news networks, you have reasonable expectations of what the product should be. Mainstream newspapers do not manipulate news pictures. When publications create photo illustrations to poke fun, we label it as an illustration.”

Wallace says citizen photojournalism does not have the framework of a newsroom, where editors and lawyers can look over their work, which takes away the level of expertise needed to publish stories. He also says the manipulation of citizen photojournalism is common because it’s so easy to do. “A 10-year-old can manipulate a picture. Anyone can have all kinds of fun and mischief with pictures.”

Because citizen photojournalists may not know about the ethics of bias, their contribution is limited, he says, because they might not adhere to them. “If they were trained and had no other agenda, they’d be trustworthy. They are someone else first, reporting in a non-traditional manner, performing their own views.”

Although Singh admits not knowing about the ethics of photojournalism, he says he has never manipulated any of his photos.  He believes that citizens and news agencies alike are capable of breaking ethical guidelines. “News agencies only show pictures of people shouting,” he says of the pictures published from the riots. “No one is going to show people silenced because it’s just not newsworthy. Everyone has that bias.” 

Singh says blogs are less likely to have biases over regular papers. “You’re just reporting what you’re seeing. You’re not with any news agency. You have no other agenda. You’re just putting them online.”

Sign of the times?

In a 2005 article about the Underground explosion,  Washington Post reporter Yuki Noguchi writes that the idea of a citizen photojournalist is nothing new. “History is full of accidental journalism using portable devices,” she says, “from the famous Abraham Zapruder film capturing President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (in 1963) to the videotape of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police (in 1991) and the incriminating snapshots taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (in 2004).”

Singh looks back on his experience during the protests and says that it was exciting to be a witness to the energy of the riots. “Just the fact that I can do this when everyone else is sitting at home,” he says. “It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t think I’m going to see another G20.”

Citizen photojournalists have become the extra eyes of the news industry. They are at the scene with their digital cameras when professionals cannot be. Although professionals say the threat of breaking ethics comes with citizens’ work, when the public offers truthful storytelling, publications can benefit from their pictures.  

“Without citizen photojournalism, the journalism industry would be restricted to professionals,” says Owen. “Many photo opportunities would be missed, and many stories would be told third-hand. This is where citizen journalism will always have a place.”

Jasmine Pazzano is a first-year Ryerson University journalism student. She is very interested in writing as well as photojournalism. She hopes to dabble in all beats of journalism, especially art and life. Other interests include music, fashion and visual art.