Citizen Journalism and the New Democracy of News
The good: a fireball streaks across Russia’s dawn sky and the world learns of it through the dash cam videos uploaded by commuters. The bad: An unedited, user submitted story goes viral, terrifies readers and embarrasses a leading news outlet. The ugly: Syrian “citizen journalists” account for 80 percent of media-related deaths in that war-torn country.
Welcome to the world of New Media, where “citizen journalists “ – anyone with a camera and a computer – can report news, sometimes long before professional news organizations can get a reporter in the field. Citizen journalism democratizes the news. But as the lines blur between amateur and professional, news and opinion, ethics and malice, the easy-to-use digital tools and unprecedented access to Internet sharing create a wild and wooly frontier. It’s a place with astonishing promise – and a very dark side indeed.
Citizen Journalism: A News Revolution
Time was, the news was a restricted commodity. Despite promises to bring readers “all the news that’s fit to print,” newspapers, magazines and, later, radio and television outlets were a closed community of professionals who decided what was news and who got to report it. Contributions from readers and listeners took the form of letters to the editor or perhaps a guest editorial if that contributor was a public figure. And while anybody could start a newsletter or share the news and gossip of the day, their reach was largely limited to the local area.
The Internet changed all that – and mobile technology and social media sealed the deal. With access to relatively cheap cameras, dash cams and computers, anyone has the power to share events and viewpoints with the whole world. And that’s a lot of power.
Who’s a Journalist Now?
Freelance writers and photographers have always been around, but they’re usually independent professionals who work closely with established news outlets to get assignments and publish stories.
But the citizen journalist may not aspire to a journalism career – who needs it when your images and opinions can reach the same worldwide audience in seconds? And because most citizen journalists are ordinary people who happen to be in a newsworthy situation or have viewpoints to share, they don’t participate in the pool of knowledge that guides professionals.
For nearly a decade news professionals and media experts have been grappling with how to accommodate the freewheeling nature of citizen journalism. Some news groups create space for users to post their content. Some use citizens’ content to back up a professional’s story. On social media, there are no brakes at all. And the fact that the old-fashioned quality control of editors and publishers is largely missing means that citizen reporting ranges from the brilliant to the amusing, and the tragic.
Citizen Journalists Face Risks . . .
Citizen reporters on the spot in volatile situations face real risks to show the world news that wouldn’t otherwise be known. Like their professional counterparts they can face attacks, imprisonment, and even death. The most recent, and tragic, example: the citizen-reporters of Syria, who hit the streets daily to document their country’s bloody civil strife – and lost their lives in the process.
Closer to home, the consequences of capturing and sharing news may be less dire but nonetheless unpleasant. Filming police actions can get citizens harassed or arrested. Sharing images and details of some events can open the door to lawsuits or harassment from people who are captured on video or in photos.
But They Lack Protections
Citizen journalists may run the same risks as the pros, but they don’t have the same protections, which range from a press pass to the so-called “shield laws” that protect reporters’ confidentiality and use of sources.
Now, those laws are facing calls for revisions to cover bloggers and other kinds of citizen journalists. Lawmakers and media professionals are demanding a simple but radical change to the language of the law: to protect “acts of journalism,’ not “journalists’ from prosecution. If adopted, that language acknowledges the legitimacy of work done by the citizen journalist and makes it equal to that of the pros.
. . . And Quality Control
But with a higher profile and more legitimacy come responsibilities The unedited and unregulated ease of sharing information has its shadowy side, where poorly written, biased content has the potential to actually harm readers and destroy the credibility of all news gatherers.
In May 2014, a story popped up on CNN’s main news page that warned that a giant asteroid was likely to strike the earth on May 35, 2041. That’s right, May 35. This asteroid, the story said, had a 50-50 chance of destroying civilization as we know it. In the 22 hours of its online life, the story went viral, prompting a flurry of panicked questions and comments.
Eventually NASA weighed in to debunk the story. It turned out that CNN had moved the story– unedited, hence the glaring date error – from their “user community” onto a main news page. The story was pulled with an explanation that normally that kind of content is edited and verified, just not this time.
The writer was masked by a cryptic username and never found. But CNN’s reputation took a hit as big as the impact of that asteroid, and many readers who didn’t see the retraction were still confused – and scared. That incident became fodder for critics of the New Media who claimed it damaged the credibility of citizen journalism and, by extension, news reporters everywhere.
Amid the calls for abolishing all citizen content are more temperate suggestions for handling situations like the asteroid story – and for helping citizen journalists stay safe in the dangerous places of the world. The key, say journalism educators, is a basic understanding of the rights and responsibilities that go with gathering and reporting the news. That means following the basic rules of Journalism 101: be accurate, be ethical, and know the difference between opinion and fact.
Citizen journalism is in its infancy, and its growing pains are obvious. But it’s here to stay and, by the way, opening doors to the future of news – where responsibilities and the risks of “acts of journalism” apply equally to all. Story by CJ McKinney (Image: Flickr | cyborean)
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