The Impact of Citizen Journalism: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Citizen Journalism

The earliest method humans used to exchange important news, such as where to find food, the danger presented by life-threatening animals, or the location of clean water, was likely through touch, gestures, and grunts.

Leap forward a few thousand years to the invention of the printing press, and it more likely resembles what you would consider to be ‘journalism’ today: masses of people accessing the same news stories, told in the same manner by the same person.

With access to the internet at the touch of a button, we know these days that the definition of journalism expands well beyond this though. While a bachelor of journalism or an online Master’s in Journalism will grant you the title of ‘journalist,’ ‘citizen journalism’ is the gathering of news by people who are not professional journalists but who instead disseminate information using websites, blogs, and social media.

What is citizen journalism?

Those who practise citizen journalism – also sometimes known as collaborative media, participatory journalism, guerrilla journalism or street journalism – play an active role in collecting or reporting on news, and they function outside of mainstream media outlets. This may be through words, images or video taken directly by the individual and shared with the masses.

With the development of various online internet platforms and technologies like social networks, media-sharing websites and the widespread use of mobiles, citizen journalism is now more accessible to people worldwide than ever before – and it often comes in at a faster pace than traditional media reports.

Citizen journalism is often shared on social media platforms. Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

Although it is hard to imagine, there was a time when first-hand footage and real-time written accounts were not the main elements of a breaking news story. Nowadays, a key example of citizen journalism in action is individuals in disaster zones who can provide instant written and visual reporting from an event, uploaded within minutes of it occurring. Those living in countries affected by political upheaval where mainstream media outlets are censored can also use technology to share otherwise ‘unpublishable’ information about the situation.

Some notable examples of citizen journalism across major world events include the September 11 attacks, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the more recent events in Ukraine – all of which the news broke with first-hand accounts of the events unfolding.

The positives and negatives of citizen journalism

The practice of citizen journalism has both its supporters and critics. With the rise of new journalistic principles such as interactivity and transparency, as opposed to objectivity and distance, it is easy to see why many believe in citizen journalism. At the same time, there are many journalists who question the rapid rise of social media technologies that make citizen journalism possible, often asking the big question – “are we supposed to make news or just cover it?”

The positives

It offers more balanced opportunity

Citizen journalism provides the opportunity to cover all angles of a story. Across the world mainstream media experience differing degrees of freedom in their reporting. For some, discreet and occasional use of self-censorship that may be ‘embarrassing’ to the home government is the limit. A more strict, omnipresent censorship is the norm for other media outlets with particular political alliances or those censored by government bodies. Citizen journalists have the freedom to publish more balanced content to ensure all angles of a story are heard, as well as challenge the reporting of other seemingly censored news.

It gives a voice to local communities

Citizen journalism allows for hyper-local news to be known around the world. It gives power to a non-journalist to share important news and current affairs that would generally not get coverage in mainstream media. It can expose different communities to different cultures and the difficulties they face, creating a better understanding of the world beyond our immediate surroundings or from the ‘standard’ powerhouse countries that dominate worldwide news.

A great example of this is seeking support for less fortunate residents in a local community. In general, this would not be picked up by mass media, however through citizen journalism, the story can be viewed by a larger audience who can help. If the story gains a lot of traction, there is even potential for it to be picked up by a larger media outlet.

It allows for specialized content

Unlike mainstream media, citizen journalism can produce hyper-specialized content that relates to very specific interests or hobbies. This type of content often appears on unique websites owned by citizen journalists and can appear in their corresponding newsletters. Just like hyper-local news, this type of content is unlikely to appear in larger media outlets.

The Negatives

Quality can vary

Trained journalists spend years honing their skills, including writing style and grammar. Citizen journalists do not necessarily have the same training or background and so the quality of the content can suffer. Poor grammar and persistent spelling errors can also reduce the credibility of the article and put readers off continuing to read or watch the content.

It can be subjective

News produced by qualified journalists can occasionally allow opinions or falsehoods to slip into their work, however, this is much more likely to occur with a citizen journalist. Professional journalists have spent years having journalistic principles drummed into them. They have professional editors reviewing their work before publication, ethical standards they must adhere to, a network of trusted experts across various fields they can use for comment and they need appropriate citations for information when presented as fact.

Citizen journalists can post anything they like at any given time. They are unlikely to have access to additional editors, or the same strong network of contacts, and may not be across the principles of journalism that protect and maintain honest reporting, resulting in work that can be harder to trust and is not riddled with misinformation.

It can impact the reporting of hard news

Hard news focuses on events or incidents considered timely and of interest to people locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. Hard news often covers politics, economics or international affairs.

With the rise of citizen journalism through social media, ‘softer news’ which is now often taken from social media content (think stories like gym members who are kicked out for their outfits or outraged individuals who want a window seat on a plane) has taken priority for its ability to generate clicks, views and comments, and hard news tends to be sidelined. With less exposure to these important news stories, there is less accountability government bodies or larger corporations these stories relate to can be held to.

There are clear pros and cons to citizen journalism. While first-hand accounts of unfolding events can be vitally important, relying on accounts from citizens can also be problematic, with information that may appear truthful can be easily manipulated to attract more attention.

At the end of the day though, citizen journalism is here to stay. Whether you are a fan or not, embracing it for its many benefits and being vigilant when consuming it is the best way to engage with it while retaining a cautious attitude toward the content.

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