Guardian column: Vigilante journalism

Why the obnoxious guy with the tiny camera makes the news

Jeff Jarvis
Monday August 27, 2007
The Guardian

Jimmy Justice, a guy with a New York accent and attitude, trolls the streets of my city hunting for cops who have the chutzpah to break the traffic laws they are sworn to enforce. When he finds an abuse of power, Jimmy swings into action. He hits the “record” button on his small camera, capturing their alleged crimes in shaky video and calling the cops to account, often with righteous, colourful, blunt, and sometimes insulting language. Then he exposes their sins to the world, broadcasting his videos on YouTube.

Jimmy has caught the cops on camera blocking fire hydrants even as fire trucks approach, double parking, parking in bus stops, making illegal u-turns, shopping while illegally parked, driving without seat belts, and trying to intimidate him. He scolds them: “What kind of example are you for the citizens of New York?” He declares: “I am Jimmy Justice and your days of running around this city like a cowboy are over!” They snap back, “You get outta my face.” One showed Jimmy’s camera her middle finger. Another got on her radio calling for backup: “I have a gentleman in my face who will not get outta my face with a video camera.”

Last week, Jimmy got considerable media attention in the US, in newspapers, on local and national TV, and in blogs. The TV people interviewed him, asking whether he was a superhero – he didn’t shy away from the title. They wondered why he wouldn’t use his real name – he says he fears retribution from the authorities he dogs. They contacted one of the cops Jimmy nailed; her response to big media was not a finger but a “no comment”.

So here’s the question: is what Jimmy Justice does journalism? Consider: he is performing the watchdog function of journalism, holding government and its agents to account. He is recording facts; his video camera – oscillating between the no-parking signs and the cops’ licence plates and badges – does not lie. He is asking tough questions. Then he shares what he learns. “I had to bring it to YouTube,” Jimmy told an interviewer. “I had to show it to the people.” I say that’s journalism – vigilante journalism, yes, but journalism nonetheless.

Others would disagree. When Jimmy was interviewed on a national morning news show, the Teflon-voiced newsman in a suit and tie sniffed at him: “It’s a little obnoxious. Do you not worry about coming off as an obnoxious, aggressive guy here?” Well, but any subject of an investigation asked an uncomfortable question by a reporter is likely to call that obnoxious. In that sense, isn’t it a reporter’s job to be aggressive enough to get the story, to afflict the powerful? But Jimmy clearly has an agenda. Yes, and so does any reporter who decides to expose traffic cops’ misdeeds; the story is the mission. But Jimmy’s not slick, he’s sloppily dressed, he has a grating accent and manner, and his camera wobbles. In short, he’s unprofessional.

Aren’t journalists supposed to be professional? Not necessarily. Not anymore. That is precisely what the professional class – in many trades – fears from the internet: it enables the amateurs. And that’s not always pretty. Institutional journalism considers its ability to package – to make things look neat and complete – a key value. But that expectation was really just a necessity of the tools of production: you have one chance to print this story, so make it good. In truth, a news story is a process to which many can now contribute. Life is messy. So is reporting on it. That shows the difficulty of the Press Complaints Commission’s determination to regulate the journalistic quality of publications online when journalism can now come from anywhere and anyone.

But the more the merrier, I say. If we in the craft care about hounding the corrupt, then more watchdogs has to be a good thing. Yes, there are certainly issues: the public may find it difficult to know whom to trust. Vigilantism often goes too far. Amateurs eager for their scoops and moments of fame can put themselves in harm’s way in dangerous stories. Stipulated.

But I still say that if we care about a watched government and an informed society, then the response to Jimmy shouldn’t be to scold him but perhaps to teach him. Indeed, a commenter on my blog suggested a gadget for Jimmy that would help him hold his camera steadier. Perhaps journalistic organisations should arm a thousand Jimmys with cameras and microphones. Perhaps they should assign the public to report alongside the professionals, to gather more news than could ever be gathered before. Maybe, just maybe, this is an element of a new means – and one new business model – of news: armies of Jimmy Journalists.

· Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at