Citizen Journalism: Is every citizen really a reporter?

In this new age of developing media and technology, traditional forms of news representation such as newspapers and television broadcasts are being left behind in favour of online journalism. Everyday people are participating more and more in what has come to be termed – controversially – as “citizen journalism”. Essentially, the term tries to convey the idea that non-professionals everywhere posses the power to write and have their voices heard in the journalistic world. Some dispute that the term cannot possibly be used with regards to untrained reporters who take writing as a hobby, only documenting stories that interest them when and where they wish. Inversely, the defendants proclaim that any type of reporting which is innovative, factual and challenging qualifies as journalism, regardless of whether or not it is professional. What does this new method of news gathering hold for the future of media? Are there areas of the new market that the mainstream media can benefit from addressing?

While traditional media companies employ a handful of reporters, the internet provides access to millions of people willing to make their voices heard. Having such a huge database of journalists means that all aspects and points of view can be covered. These contributors are usually passionate about their respective fields, and can even have the upper hand over journalists in some situations. As an example, the political unrest in military-governed Burma brought up much debate and news coverage, but due to the isolated nature of the remote country, journalists were less than welcome, making up to date coverage of stories difficult. In this case citizen journalists living in the country posted photographs on Flickr, videos on YouTube and generally provided an insight into the life of the people through the web, which would have otherwise gone undocumented. This has increased awareness of the struggle that people go through within the country, bypassing the government’s attempts at filtering internet information, and even cutting it off.

Citizen journalism can be a source of free labour for traditional media Organisations which have made use of it gain far more than they spend. By contrast, OhMyNews does pay its reporters if their stories gain a considerable interest and make it onto the website homepage, providing an incentive for good quality journalism.

At Gawker media, employees are paid depending on the amount of traffic and page views their posted stories receive, therefore creating a fast-paced active online site which is continuously being updated several times by each person. Traffic is constantly tracked so that live feedback for stories can be given, allowing high rates of advertising, which is where the company makes its money.

On the other hand, untrained citizens reporting for the media can in some cases put them in risky environments, as was documented in the July 7 bombings. The BBC alone received more than 1,000 pictures, 20 videos and 4,000 text messages documenting the disaster as it happened. All in the space of six hours where most journalist teams were being informed by authorities that the uproar was caused by a “power surge” on the underground. This just shows the power that the public has by constantly being at the forefront of news all around the world. Here, the accessibility to news that the public has, and its instant delivery of information, helped the mainstream media gain essential facts and details – a skill which journalists pride themselves upon.

Understandably, the lack of journalistic knowledge of the public means that information is often not clear and of a low standard. Newspapers have the advantage of a consistent format and reliability making readers loyal out of habit. This consistency is obviously hard to achieve due to the amount of information and reporters that the internet connects. The public also lacks the database of resources that is crucial to news gathering and reporting, which could lead to a lack of substance.

Public participation in a field where it has little or no experience can however sometimes create its own drawbacks. Journalists who argue against the trends of citizen journalism say that the majority of the public cannot compete with what they have to offer in terms of training. In response to this, some bright sparks have found a way to combine the power of the people and the power of journalistic knowledge to their advantage. In the cases where citizen journalism has succeeded, the amateur reporters have often received support and assistance. For example The Huffington Posts “Off The Bus” blog provides writers with a simple spell/grammar check and journalist tips which help create a standard of reliability throughout the site. OhMyNews! is a Korean based online newspaper which recruits anyone and everyone to submit stories to its website, its tagline proudly stating that “every citizen is a reporter”. Its founders recently opened a “citizen journalism school” where people can learn the basic skills of journalism and use this to aid the reporting and newsgathering teams of the public. Another place we see this balance in action is the Huffington Post’s Off The Bus campaign, which shows a public perspective on the presidential campaign. Here, citizen reporters are armed with a toolkit of items – camera, recorder etc. – to help them in the search for up to the minute news stories. The site uses its tools to its advantage, backing its citizen reporters with money and authority which aids their authenticity in reporting news.

The same characteristics of citizen journalism that affect how news is gathered, have also changed the way it is organised and presented. The Google News web page allows users to chose which stories they want to see more or less of from sub-sections of news categories. Archant is developing a mapping system whereby all its news stories are tagged with an area code allowing readers to search for and view the news that affects their area.

News blogging brings in a different aspect of journalism whereby the user writes stories that interest them on an open platform where readers can comment. These blogs can then be bookmarked by people who find them useful, and in this way writers gain authenticity and status within the online community through sites such as Digg and Delicious. Using these websites essentially eliminates the need for searching through different news websites, collecting information from all over the web and organising it in a “newspaper front page” style, voted by readers themselves. This supports the idea that people are taking news into their own hands, personalising and organising it depending on changing interests.

Citizen journalists have the advantage of the outsider view – they are not tied down to any company or contract. As a result, they can often provide a more personal point of view than what we see on TV or read in the paper. In the US, for example, FOX news channel contributor Liz Trotta slipped in a joke about getting rid of Obama (confusing him with Osama bin Laden) which was initially ignored by the mainstream news. On the other hand bloggers everywhere were astounded and wrote about it, eventually leading to mainstream media coverage of the story.

Politics is an area where citizen journalism comes into its element, potentially due to the fact that its relationship with the news is not commonly perceived as an open and balanced. OhMyNews! provided coverage of the 2002 South Korean elections as reported by the public and in doing so played a role in getting Roh Moo Hyun elected as president. Similarly, the mainstream media coverage of the Beijing Olympics – focusing solely on medals and sporting events – overlooks many of the constant protests and public demonstrations regarding Tibet. Independent video blog writer Brian Conley was recently imprisoned for filming one such protest. His video blog Alive In Baghdad employs Iraqi journalists to present their side of everyday life in the city.

These new forms of news gathering also allow for communication between what has become a stagnant area of journalism and the fast paced world of technology. In 2006, Nokia sponsored the Citizen Journalism Awards, where bloggers around the world were awarded for their attempts at covering news stories themselves. They went on to release a toolkit for reporting which includes everything from a microphone to a solar powered phone charger.

Learning from these ideas, some mainstream media organisations are beginning to realise the benefit citizen journalism can hold for them. CNN has an entire branch focused on it – the iReport, which reports “unedited, unfiltered news”. Scoopt takes citizen media in the form of photographs and markets it to the mainstream media, given an exclusive license so that the photo cannot be seen elsewhere. From this transaction, the photographer pockets 40% of the royalties.

Citizen journalism may still be a vague term in its beginning stages but its growth reflects that people are looking for fresh ideas from sources which allows users to interact and be a part of the journalistic process. By opening up reporting and journalism to the public, broadcasters are bringing new ideas and methods of presentation into play, and enabling a more diverse audience to take a greater interest in the news.

One response to “Citizen Journalism: Is every citizen really a reporter?”

  1. Joel Katz

    Great review of citizen journalism!

    Looking forward to reading a ‘peek at the future’ in your next post.

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