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The Problem with Citizen Journalism

Want to get a professional journalist fired up? Tell them how much you love citizen journalism and how it’s going to put them out of a job. Sure, it’s a sweeping generalization, but every time I talk mention citizen journalism in a post or tweet, I get some at least one message from a journalist that says “it’s not journalism.” I think the problem most professional journalists have with the term “citizen journalism” is the word “journalism.” If we just called it “people blogging or tweeting stuff that’s going on right now”, or if we called it an “eyewitness account”, there would probably be less controversy around the subject.

If we used a “citizen mechanic” to change the oil in our cars, or if a “citizen chef” invited us over for dinner on the weekend, would the hard working mechanics and chefs of the world get their feathers ruffled? Probably not, but then again, who knows?

Journalists often go to college to learn their trade. Many journalists have spent years honing their craft, toiling away at computer screens, or standing in the rain reporting on a car crashes, only to be one-upped by some yahoo with an iPhone for Flip Mino that happened to be standing there when news happened.

It can’t be the word “citizen” that gets professional journalists upset, right? After all, we’re all citizens. If you want to get technical, you could say all professional journalists are in fact “citizen” journalists. But that would be silly, and that’s not really the issue, is it?

The truth of the matter is that the world around us has changed. As citizens, we were much more reliant on professional journalists to feed us information in the past. I’d argue that we are still reliant on professional journalists in this way, as the average “citizen” isn’t truly equipped to report on the real issues the way you and I could. At the same time, you can’t discount the value of content you and I produce as citizen… spokespeople or eyewitnesses. If there’s value in the content I provide, and you want to consume or share it, who’s to say that content is less valuable than what you can get on the newsstand?

The only real problem with citizen journalism is that it gets more difficult for all of us to decide what to believe. With traditional journalism, it was safe to assume for a long time that the information we were getting was factual. Checked and re-checked for accuracy. Stories were edited in an inverted pyramid, giving us all the news that’s fit to print, up front in the first three paragraphs. Today, anyone can write or record anything and present it as fact – leaving us to serve in the capacity of editors. In a way, we’ve all become citizen editors to this regard. Few people take news content at face value anymore, especially when any of us with an Internet connection can hop on the Web to check other news sources or see what people are saying about a topic on Twitter or other social media.

I don’t have a problem with citizen journalism. I like the concept of getting information from other informed citizens. I also value the information I get from professional journalists. Both approaches to reporting or disseminating information can coexist, and do, today. If you’re one of those people that has a problem with citizen journalism, you’re not seeing the big picture.

Can you think of a better example of freedom of speech – or freedom of the press for that matter – than social media and citizen journalism? We’re free to express our opinions as we see fit. It’s up to the rest of you to decide whether or not there is value in that information. If not, go somewhere else. If so, keep on reading.

What do you think about citizen journalism? Do you think it’s less valuable than professional journalism? What information sources do you trust most?

(Image Credit: Apollo 11 Video Restoration Press Conference / Newseum by Goddard Photo and Video Blog)

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.

  • http://www.swordandthescript.blogspot.com/9/1 Frank Strong

    This is a great post Jeremy, and while I agree with your take here, I tend to avoid making a comparison — that one is better than the other. Each has it’s own merits.

    Despite the headlines, I don’t believe traditional journalism is going anyway. Sure it will change — perhaps a bit of creative destruction with all the talent available right now — but we can’t confuse the need to find a sustainable new business model with the value of objective, well researched, professional journalism.

    However, with the advent of citizen writers and publishers, breaking news will become an even more competitive business — news simply moves to quickly online to make money breaking it. However I think the analysis of news is as important as the news itself — like the content we find in weekly publications such as the Economist, or even a daily like the Journal.

    Generally, citizen writers, and putting subject matter experts covering niches aside, don’t have the time, resources or access to dive down deeply. Clearly, that’s not always true — but I think traditional journalism will focus on fewer issues, but with more depth. To that end there’s room for both. IMHO.

    • Jeremy Porter

      Completely agree. I thought that was the position I took in the post – that both can coexist, and both will keep on trucking. I think we need (and want) both.

  • http://kristinelowe.blogs.com/ Kristine Lowe

    I think a lot of the opposition to cit-j, and somtimes some of the problemes with cit-j, is using the word journalism to describe it. It certainly is a key reason why journalists often attack it, often blindly, as humbug. Besides many of those we call citizen journalists don’t see themselves as doing journalism, and often enough they submit opinion and call it news.

    As someone who has worked as a citizen journalism editor I’d say that a lot of what is submitted under this banner is very far from journalism, it is however a brilliant starting point for journalism and it does broaden the debate, offer new angles, new and valuable input, and sometimes access we’d otherwise be hard put to obtain. There are fantastic opportunities here journalists to collaborate closer with their readers/viewers/listeners to create better, more informed journalism, but in my experience the bottle neck here is often journalists – they are often adverse to working with their audience in this way, especially when we call content submitted by non-journalists citizen journalism;-) I don’t know if it’s easier in media orgs that call it user generated content, another dubious concept… Also, putting blogging and tweeting under the banner citizen journalism, as some do, muddles the concept even further…

  • Steve

    Great discussion, and an interesting take on the perceived importance of how different things are labeled, and how we’re all editors now.
    I think citizen journalism is sprouting up everywhere and I think it’s great. I think push-back by professional journalists is part bitterness over the current state of the industry, but I think another part of it is sort of a residual arrogance leftover from a time when the media relished its role as doling out information according to its own rules of what was fit to print.
    Now, as the industry struggles, gaps in coverage, particularly on a local level, become apparent. Filling those gaps has become easier in this day and age. For example, in my city the city council now streams its meetings live, allowing local bloggers to flesh out an issue that might not have made the paper for a variety of reasons, from space to frankly a lack of interest on the part of the reporter.
    Good journalists are already using elements of citizen journalism to inform their reporting, and in many ways, always have. Reporters, myself included, often scan the comments sections of our stories to see if tips or names of suspects or interesting leads pop up. It’s the comments section, so it can be a bit of a wild west environment of information exchange, but every now and then an interesting nugget pops up. That’s a sort of rudimentary crowd-sourcing, if I’ve got my terms right. And hey, some of it is just the amplification effects of technology. A citizen journalist who happens to be walking by when a shooting occurs will write it up for all to see; a good journalist will head to the scene of said shooting and try to talk to anyone they see in the area, reporting what those people saw.
    As for filtering the good from the bad, there’s no good answer. I would hope it would be like the public’s treatment of any news organization–trust built up over time as the result of solid, factual reporting that stands up to scrutiny. The cream will rise to the top, as the cliche goes. Hey, if it’s some guy with a flip and a laptop that gets it first and gets it right and not a paid professional, should that make any difference to the curious citizen?

    • Jeremy Porter

      Great to have the perspective of a real journalist. Thanks for sharing your feedback Steve.

      • http://www.davidnews.co.uk David Stone

        As I understand it from my tender years as a broadcast journo, ‘citizens’ have always been the best sources of news – they’re the people we interview, the people that are involved in what’s happening, the eyewitness, the expert.

        If they happen to have a camera on them and the footage and/or audio is usable – all the better. Even blogs are great sources of news – if you can find a second source to back up the claims. These people are passionate about the area/locality they’re writing about – but the general public generally don’t have the time to scour all these sources themselves.

        A journalist’s role has always, if you think about it, been to collect together information that’s known by a small amount of people (which could be from 2 people to thousands), check it’s correct, find out all the details and illustrate them in a concise and understandable manner. As I’ve suggested here*, all that’s really changed is that the raw information is easier to access. It doesn’t mean everyone has the time to look at and/or process it into ‘news’.

        So unless there’s enough citizen journalists who can afford to work the hours of normal journalists for free, I don’t think we’re in too much trouble from them just yet.

        *my server often has tantrums, am in the process of finding a new host.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tressalynne Tressa Robbins

    Thought-provoking post, Jeremy. I think you hit the nail-on-the-head when you say that one reason for the question (and/or attack) is that we use the term “citizen journalism.” I can how it would offend someone who got a college degree in journalism and has worked their way up the ranks of traditional media. But I agree with you and Frank that there is room for both!

  • http://www.kristinaallenpr.com Kristina Allen

    Great post! A picture says a thousand words, and a video says a thousand more, so if a citizen journalist is able to get me an image or video I’ll watch it and consider it a news source- but I also realize that citizens aren’t trained in journalism. A picture tells me a lot, but to get the facts I’ll look to a more traditional news source where I feel confident that an employed journalist has done all the digging around and fact checking to report what happened.

  • http://www.nomoredeadlines.com Geoffrey Roth

    We used to, and still should, rely on professional journalists to both supply us with properly reported information and analysis of what is happening in our society and our government. One of the tenants of a functioning democracy is that we have a well informed citizenry. Yet we seem willing to place that responsibility now in the hands of anyone with a Flipcam and Internet access. Would you be as open to the concept if you walked into a hospital for an operation and were greeted like this: “Hi, I’m Joe, your Citizen Surgeon. I will be performing your surgery today . I haven’t had any formal medical training but I carve the turkey at Thanksgiving every year.

  • http://www.blogfromitaly.com/ Alex Roe

    Interesting post on citizen journalism, and it is something which interests me too.

    As a result of writing posts for my own site, some people have come to regard me as being a journalist – though I am not. Some, though not all, of the stuff I write is based on my own research – things which all of us can get hold of via a little digging and by knowing where to look. I have no editor breathing down my neck though.

    Like some other bloggers, I’ve been asked to ‘cover’ events. And then there is one of my fans – a Pulitzer Prize finalist, would you believe. My fan also happened to be an AP press bureau chief too. In other words, I’m a blogger with a journalist as a fan. I have to admit that I was surprised to find out that I had a high powered former journalist as a fan – but he seems to believe that blogs like mine – a mix of reporting, and comment which is often based on sources – and interviews from time to time – is the future.

    The internet is transforming journalism and creating a new breed of ‘journalists’ too. It’s fascinating to see what is happening and to be part of it.

    Some though, have questioned whether my blog is really a blog…

    Things will remain murky for some time to come, I suspect.

    Best,

    Alex

  • Paul Meier

    Again, a good article.

    Maybe the way to think about the various forms of citizen jouranlism is that they are new channels of primary unchecked news sources and comment. From the point of view of beleaguered professional news publishers, they are a welcome addition to the ability to gather, filter, and present news. In many ways they are a return to the past “stringer”, but with greater technical capability and the ability to publish directly.

    This picture is already blurring, as professional journalists and commentators take up these new low cost ways of publishing. The reader will simply learn, as they have in print, to discriminate between a source of news which generally gets it right and one which is more likely to be apocryphal or plain wrong.

  • http://hansenhouse.wordpress.com Glenn Hansen

    Thanks for posting these thoughts on citizen journalism. And I think the terms need to stick together and need to be broadcast. No, there should not be journalist licensing, but as a writer, editor, blogger and public opiner myself, I would have no problem tagging any of my writings as “citizen journalism.”

    If you do NOT get paid for your reporting, then you are a citizen journalist, and everyone should know and be able to recognize the difference. It’s certainly not a judgment thing, just an awareness thing.

    I do feel that professional journalists need to think more like scientists today – embrace the citizens out there who value your craft and try to emulate it. Citizen Science projects are booming worldwide, and are offering great benefits to professional scientists who have embraced citizens who a yen for such projects.

    Google “citizen science” and you’ll be amazed at the great collaborative work that is being done by citizens and pros everywhere. Journalism certainly needs to make similar evolutionary steps.

    Glenn Hansen

  • http://www.jetwhine.com Rob Mark

    Maybe I’m a pragmatist, but I doubt traditional media will disappear. It will shrink and change for sure, but not go away. The way traditional media pays itself and it’s employees will change, but everyone I know is dealing with changes to compensation aren’t they?

    An important part of regular media is that it still feeds us bloggers with much of the ideas we choose to comment on. Think about how much citizen journalism would change if ALL the citizens had to generate their own ideas? Many of them would disappear.

    To me, I don’t honestly care what anyone calls it. Everything has morphed into this brave new world of information that I either use or lose. What I enjoy though – and what I think CJ can add – more than anything are the new bloggers who take a stand on something in a way I’d not thought of before.

    Traditional journalists are taught NEVER to interject themselves into a story and to report only the facts. I want more than that and now I can have it, no matter who the writer might be.

    BTW, I do think it is critical that readers understand their role … being responsible for checking the credability of the writers they follow.

    BTW2 – Good blog here. I’m going to show this to some of my students.

  • http://www.roanokefreepress.com/ Valerie Garner

    I started blogging as an activist and eventual expert on a local subject. I was then asked to write a feature on the subject for a fledgling weekly. It went from there to my own website where all my content is original onsite reporting.

    Other content is submitted or garnered from press releases and phone interviews. I get calls on newsy stuff as well.

    I never labeled myself but I’d like to be called a “citizen journalist” and not a blogger. I don’t aggregate. I make a few bucks from the weekly – it is sort of nice to get paid for sitting in a council meeting all day. I add detail and “story telling” to what I write that I’m told makes people feel like they were there.

    I think that is the difference in what our daily writes versus a citizen journalist at least in my case – give the reader not just facts and a few quotes but observation and nuances that tell the story. Maybe the daily is restricted by space and rigid style – I don’t know – maybe someone here can explain.

    • http://www.blogfromitaly.com Alex

      Hi Valerie,

      I think you make an important point:
      “I think that is the difference in what our daily writes versus a citizen journalist at least in my case – give the reader not just facts and a few quotes but observation and nuances that tell the story. Maybe the daily is restricted by space and rigid style…”

      People seem to want a little more than ‘plain’ reporting. They want facts with a little more comment- something they can relate to – which is why blogs, and ‘super’ blogs like Huff Post have become popular.

      Articles in newspapers and on news sites do seem to be rather dull at times – but I guess that is just the journalistic style.

      At the end of the day though – think about the origins of journalism and the meaning of the word ‘journal’. The original journalists were just like bloggers. What goes around, comes around?

      Alex

  • http://www.nacj.us Ron Ross

    The National Association of Citizen Journalists has been formed to solve the problem of untrained citizen journalists. Check us out. We can help. We’re out to recruit, train and motivate 100,000 citizen journalists all across the land. Appreciate any feedback.
    Thanks,
    Dr. Ron Ross
    Catalyst-in-chief

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