Citizen Journalists: Rights, Risks, and Responsibilities
By:   //  Citizen Journalism

A police officer grabs the cell phone you used to film him kicking a suspect in handcuffs. You photograph a violent clash between protesters and the military in your town, or a stray bullet puts you in the hospital for weeks, A person you caught on a video posted to YouTube threatens to sue you for invasion of privacy. You’re a citizen journalist trying to open the eyes of the world – but you’re right in the line of fire.

Citizen journalism – ordinary people capturing and sharing news with a global audience – has forever changed the way we learn about the world. It’s the democratization of the news, a new order in which media professionals and unpaid citizens alike have access to the same tools and platforms to tell their stories. But poorly written pieces that blur the line between fact and opinion, and outright hoaxes accepted as truth are only a few of the issues that bedevil a completely open media.

Citizen journalists range from the individual who just happens to be in the right place at the right time with a cell phone or camera, to the dedicated amateur who seeks out events and issues with the clear intent of sharing them with the wider world. Add to that the people who take to the world’s many social channels to publicizes a variety of causes, agendas and their own experiences, and you have a complex shifting landscape of fact, opinion and fabrication – all completely open to a global audience that trusts that the news is accurate, reliable and fair.

But that’s not always the case, as we reported in part one of this series. CNN was left with asteroid sized egg on its corporate face after a hoax-ish story from its user community about the imminent destruction of the earth in an asteroid strike hit its main news page. Stories like that, and news-based opinion pieces represented as news articles along with other iffy content that shows up alongside traditional news reports, makes media experts worry that, like CNN, the entire news business may be facing a credibility crisis it can’t fix.

So, recognizing that bad citizen journalism undermines the credibility of everybody engaging in acts of journalism, news professionals and mainstream media groups have stepped up to help improve the quality of citizen journalism and keep its practitioners safe, with a growing list of resources, courses and guides aimed at reducing risks educating about rights, and encouraging responsibility.

Reducing Risks
Reporting news that the powers that be prefer to keep hidden has always been a risky proposition, and many professional journalists have died or faced prison or torture for doing their jobs. Now, citizen reporters are increasingly facing the same fates.

In areas of the world where political unrest and tight control of the media go hand in hand, citizen journalists have acted as the shock troops of truth. They’ve shown the world what the mainstream press could not, with first hand reports spread via blogs, tweets, and other social media. And in many cases, they’ve paid the price. Reporters Without Borders, a global journalism watchdog group, reports that 80 percent of media related deaths in Syria since 2012 have involved citizen journalists on the front lines, and a new article from Women News Network points out the increasing hostility toward citizen news gatherers in Ukraine and Central Europe.

Citizen reporters in safer zones face risks too – often at the hands of authority figures such as police or other government officials caught in bad behavior on someone’s cell phone camera or digital recorder. Citizens filming police have been arrested on a variety of charges ranging from trespassing to obstructing justice. They’ve been harassed and roughed up, and their equipment has been confiscated. Citizen reporters, especially bloggers, have also been threatened, sued, or assaulted by people they’ve captured on video or mentioned in an article.

Understanding Rights
Citizen journalism advocates see those incidents as an issue of civil rights and the exercise of free speech. A wide range of media groups, news outlets, and journalists’ organizations have come up with guidelines for helping citizen journalists exercise those rights and still stay safe.

Organizations such as Photography Is Not a Crime, Global Journalism Security, Poynter’s News University, and Women News Network have created guidelines and printable sheets that advise citizen reporters to, among other things:

  • Know local laws relating to public and private property;
  • Know how to talk to intimidating authority figures
  • Plan for a safe place to go if a situation turns dangerous
  • Know rights regarding privacy and personal property
  • Be a reporter, not an activist

Laws protecting journalists vary around the word from strong to nonexistent. But in the US, serious debate continues over extending existing “shield laws” protecting journalists to citizens committing the same acts of journalism. At this point, that hasn’t happened, so citizen reporters are on their own when it comes to educating and protecting themselves.

Accepting Responsibility
The relationship between the citizen journalist and mainstream professional news media is complex—and symbiotic. While working reporters decry getting scooped by a quick thinking amateur on the scene, their editors have no problem incorporating that citizen’s footage into the resulting story, And mainstream news services happily make room for citizen content in “user communities,” which they regularly prowl for pieces worthy of promotion to the main news page.

As citizen reporting becomes more and more entwined with mainstream newsgathering, concerns about accuracy and the credibility and quality of the material being shared become more pressing

With that in mind, media giants including PBS, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera are offering free mini courses and guidelines on responsible reporting. Citizen journalism guides are available in print and ebook formats. Some sites using citizen content are beefing up their user guidelines and adding:” Journalism 101” concepts to their user resources. And much publicized mistakes like CNN’s blunder over its asteroid story are reminding the public to take what they read with a very large grain of salt.

Love it or hate it, citizen reporting is here to stay. That genie, unleashed thanks to cheap digital devices and easy sharing tools, can’t go back in the bottle. And as lines continue to blur between “professional” and “amateur” acts of journalism, the risks and responsibilities of reporting the news apply equally to all. Story by CJ McKinney (Image: Flickr | sambrock)


Baldwin, Roberto. “How To Be A Citizen Journalist Without Getting Killed.” Gizmoid. 26 Oct 2011

“Best Practices For Working With Citizen Journalists.” Online Course. Poynter News University. Accessed 25 Jun 2014.

Flam, Faye. “Oops. CNN Runs Bogus Story Saying Asteroid Has 1 in 2.04 Odds of Destroying Earth.” Knight Science Journalism. 27 May 2014

“Journalists Under Siege.” Global Journalist Security. Accessed 25 Jun 2014

“Keeping Safe As A Citizen Journalist.” FutureChange. 1 Mar 2010

Krager, Bert. “The Photographer’s Rights.” Downloadable PDF. Accessed 24 Jun 2014.

Radisic, Danica. “Citizen Journalists in Ukraine and Eastern Europe Can’t Find Safe Zones.” Global Voices. Women News Network. 25 Jun 2014

“Ten Rules For Recording Cops and Other Authority Figures.” Photography is Not A Crime. Accessed 25 Jun 2014. \

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