2009 Polk Award for citizen journalism?

So the George Polk Awards in Journalism were announced the other day. Amongst the winners for 2009 there was something curious that I had mixed feelings about. The George Polk Award for Videography.

The anonymous individuals responsible for recording the shooting death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan at a June protest in Tehran, Iran, and uploading the video to the Internet. The video became a rallying point for the reformist opposition in Iran.

Here is the disturbing and horrifically sad video:

Here is the announcement in full:
The George Polk Award for Videography will recognize the efforts of the people responsible for recording the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan at a June protest in Tehran, Iran, and uploading the video to the Internet. Ms. Agha-Soltan reportedly was shot by a pro-government militiaman. The video, which shows the woman collapsing to the ground and being attended to by several men as she lay dying on the street, became a rallying point for the reformist opposition in Iran after it was broadcast over the Internet. Seen by millions as it spread virally across the Web, the images quickly gained the attention of international media.

Here’s what I do like: that it is an award to the anonymous AND it is in effect the first time such a prestigious journalism award has been given to a citizen journalist and not a traditional news outlet or journalist. This is high significant and a HUGE leap in what I believe is the right and inevitible new direction we are headed in.

Here’s what I don’t like: it is the equivalent of awarding the winner of America’s Funniest Home Videos the Oscar for Best Picture. There’s no real skill or talent involved. It was just someone in the right place at the right time with a video camera. (This is to take NOTHING away from or to minimize the life and death of Neda Agha-Soltan or to diminish the bravery it to be and film in Iran at that time and under those conditions. I am talking strictly in a journalistic sense.)

I just feel it does a disservice to the title “journalists.” I feel like it does more to further the idea that just because you have a blog, camera and/or video camera that you are a journalist. Granted, armed with these things you have the potential to be a journalist, but the fact you use them and may even occasionally cover or catch real news does not propel you into the field or earn anyone the title of journalist. I think part of the evidence of this mislead belief being a slippery slope is the sheer number of talking heads on television, news programs and news stations that purport to be journalistic in nature or delivering the news when they are really only their to further their own agenda and there is very little legwork if any to uncover the truth. No, even an expensive camera and expensive suit does not make you a journalist.

I was talking with George recently about the National Enquirer being considered for a Pulitzer for their breaking the news about John Edward’s mistress and love-child. Essentially, he pointed out that just because you break a story doesn’t mean that it is journalistic in nature. Yes, he conceded, National Enquirer got the scoop but he felt that eligibility should hinge on more than just that. A Pulitzer was for the gathering of a story, the craft of putting it together and the disseminating of the assembled piece. Which the Enquirer fell short of. I think there’s parallels between this video and the National Enquirer consideration. (Care to weigh in George?)

So what does make someone a journalist? This question will elicit as many different and varied responses as what’s the best ice cream out there? (Ben & Jerry’s Crème Brulée if you really wanted to know the truth.) I think it simply would have to be someone who knows, believes in and adheres to certain practices and standards of the trade with a commitment to pursue and tell the truth. And I think the brave soul who shot this video does not meet this criteria.

So back to the award. While I do think it was a huge and necessary step in the right direction, one that I would rather have and disagree with than not have at all, while I appreciate the sentiment and nod, I can’t help but feel it might of missed its target.