Citizen Journalism

Citizen Journalism and its Impact on the Professional World

By Stacey Battenberg

The invention of the Internet has slowly and steadily changed the modern world, including the way information is collected and passed on to others. Today, ordinary citizens not only have access to countless amounts of data with the click of a mouse, but they also have the ability to create and submit their own content for anyone to see on the World Wide Web. With the decline of newspaper circulations and network television viewership plummeting across the U.S., professional journalists are scrambling to carry on their role as the country’s chief source for news.  And the growing popularity of everyday citizens sharing news through blogs and other information sharing technologies is making the need for professional journalists seemingly less evident. This concept of regular people reporting the news to their peers with the help of the Internet is a phenomenon known as citizen journalism.

Defining citizen journalism

Citizen journalism is based on the idea that ordinary, untrained citizens can play an active role in gathering and reporting news information with the help of modern technology. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen (2008) claims citizen journalism occurs when people formerly known as the audience utilize the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another. Blogs, wikis and Web sites with news content created by nonprofessional journalists are all examples of citizen journalism. However, the boundaries of citizen journalism are very limited and could include anything from writing a blog about a recent political speech to taking photos or video of a newsworthy event and posting them online. Due to the wide dispersion of media tools such as digital cameras and video phones, the average person can now make news and dispense it globally, a task that was once solely left to journalists and media outlets (Glaser, 2006). Some other commonly used terms to describe citizen journalism are participatory journalism, grassroots journalism, public journalism, and street journalism.


To learn more about Jay Rosen, visit his blog.

A long history

Although citizen journalism is a relatively new term, its practice dates back to the 18th century when pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine and the authors of the Federalist papers gained recognition after printing their own publications (Glaser, 2006). The 85 essays of the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay and published in newspapers in 1787 and 1788.  The work of these unpaid writers ran under the anonymous byline “Publius” and was made available to readers piece-by-piece, similar to the way a blog functions today (Bentley, 2008).

More recently, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the footage of police beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 were both captured by citizens at the scene of these events (Glaser, 2006). The development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s allowed people to create personal homepages and share their thoughts with the world, which made citizen journalism much easier for the masses (Glaser, 2006).

The idea of active citizen journalism began to skyrocket after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Before that time, blogs were reserved for simply reacting to the news and mainly written by tech-savvy individuals (Glaser, 2006). However, many ordinary people witnessed the events of 9/11 and their individual stories and images were a large part of this incident’s impact (Glaser, 2006). Since 9/11, citizen journalists have only grown in numbers and more average people are maintaining blogs and running their own independent media Web sites. In 2007, Technorati tracked 70 million blogs and an estimated 120,000 new blogs were being created worldwide each day or 1.4 blogs per second (Silfry, 2007).

Here is a video with more history and interesting information about citizen journalism.

The need for citizen journalists

The need for citizen journalism stems from the idea that mainstream media reporters and producers are not the most knowledgeable sources for any given subject and the collective audience can provide more information than one professional journalist alone (Glaser, 2006). Proponents of this craft believe that ordinary citizens who are personally involved with an issue have the ability to report facts in ways that are more meaningful and complete than outside reporters (Seven Things, 2007). Allowing anyone to cover the news has the potential to unite communities of people with common interests by letting people view events from multiple angles rather than only through the lens of the mainstream media (Seven Things, 2007). With the help of globalization of the Internet and new technology, the media is no longer a one way system because citizens now have the ability to contribute to news conversations in meaningful ways (Citizen, 2009).

Another benefit of citizen journalism is the rapid flow of information it creates. Hyperlocal reporting, which is news coverage of narrow or community-level events, increases the flow of information to more people because it involves regular citizens reporting information that professional journalists cannot or do not cover (Citizen, 2009).  Research has also shown that traditional news organizations believe that reader participation actually increases the quality of news, which consequently results in higher levels of trust that communities have in the news (Seven Things, 2007). Finally, the practice of citizen journalism engages average people with new activities about the world around them, forming a deeper connection with the subjects of their investigation (Seven Things, 2007) and ultimately creating better, more insightful stories.

What is trustworthy?

One of the biggest issues revolving around citizen journalism is the uncertainty of its credibility. The quality of work created by citizen journalists varies by individual effort, which often makes such content more likely to be trivial or unreliable (Seven Things, 2007). Tom Alderman (2008) compares citizen journalism to the participation on Amazon.com and discusses how cautious shoppers on the site are aware of the pitfalls surrounding the user reviews. “When looking at reviews that accompany every title, critical thinkers wonder who’s the citizen writing this review? Is this a thoughtful opinion from a reader, or from a friend, or foe, of the author trying to influence sales?” (Alderman, 2008). Critics of citizen journalism pose similar questions about news content posted on blogs and doubt their overall validity.

Conversely, many Internet users never question any or all content found online and are even more likely to trust information that is called “news” (Seven Things, 2007). From this perspective, content created by citizen journalists that is offensive, inaccurate, or sensationalized has the potential to be unreservedly validated (Seven Things, 2007). This is problematic because the concept of citizen participation in the mass media is based on boosting the trustworthiness of the news (Seven Things, 2007). University of Georgia journalism professor David Hazinski claims that citizen journalism is not real journalism because citizen reporters lack the professional ability to provide the public with independent, accurate, and reliable information. Hazinski says, “It’s gossip. Where’s the training, experience, standards, and skills essential to gather and report news? It opens up the news flow to the strong possibility of fraud and abuse” (as cited in Alderman, 2008). Because citizen journalists are unpaid and sometimes amateurish, they are not held to high moral and professional standards in the same way trained journalists are, yet citizen journalists are deemed equally or perhaps more credible by certain individuals or groups. Conscientious professional journalists know how to separate supportable facts from opinion in news stories while many citizen journalists do not have this necessary skill; therefore, consumers of citizen journalism should always maintain a wary perspective when turning to blogs for news (Seven Things, 2007).

The impact on professional journalism

With traditional news outlets losing more and more revenue with each passing year, many people wonder about the fate of professional journalism as technology continues to advance. According to Terry Heaton, the senior vice president for Audience Research & Development (a Texas-based media-consulting firm), news organizations need to redefine themselves as more local media companies and maintain a sharp focus on the Internet (as cited in Wenger, 2009). Heaton also claims successful journalists of the future will be equipped with everything needed to produce multi-media news because “the industry specialist is going away and the versatile generalist will command the big salaries down the road” (as cited in Wenger, 2009).

Professional journalism has already begun to adapt to changes caused by globalization and the Internet. Virtually all print publications and broadcast stations have online Web sites with news content that is updated constantly. The worlds of mainstream media and citizen journalists are also beginning to collide all over the planet, including on OhMyNews.com, a popular news site in South Korea (Glaser, 2006). The online news source features work created by both professional and citizen reporters, with citizen journalists receiving small amounts of money for their contributions (Glaser, 2006). Similar Web sites across the U.S. have been created in an effort to pool the talents of citizens and professional reporters in order to generate the best news coverage possible. Some examples in Minnesota include the Twin Cities Daily Planet, the McGill Report, and Northfield Citizens Online.

The online world and media technology are constantly changing, which means the world of news production must change along with it in order to remain a prevalent function of society. It is unlikely that professional journalists will ever completely disappear; however, the traditional ways in which journalists still deliver news content today will eventually become methods of the past. The future of journalism belongs to those who can adapt with changing communication technologies and use them to generate quality news coverage for the public.

References
-Alderman, T. (2008, April 17). Citizen journalism: Can we trust it? The Huffington Post. Retrieved December 3, 2009, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-alderman/citizen-journalism-can-we_b_97286.html

-Bentley, C.H. (2008, June). Citizen Journalism: Back to the Future? Retrieved November 29, 2009, from http://citizenjournalism.missouri.edu/researchpapers/bentley_cj_carnegie.pdf

-Citizen Journalism. (2009). Retrieved December 3, 2009, from Northeastern University, Educational Technology Center Web site: http://www.edtech.neu.edu/interactive_tools/citizen_journalism/

-Glaser, M. (2006, September 27). Your guide to citizen journalism. MediaShift. Retrieved November 29, 2009, from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2006/09/your-guide-to-citizen-journalism270.html

-Rosen, J. (2008, July 14). A most useful definition of citizen journalism. PressThink. Retrieved November 29, 2009, from http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html

-Seven Things You Should Know About Citizen Journalism. (2007, November). Retrieved November 29, 2009, from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7031.pdf

-Silfry, D. (2007). The state of the live Web, April 2007. Retrieved November 29, 2009, from http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000493.html

-Wenger, D.H. (2009). Death of a Newscast? Society of Professional Journalists. Retrieved December 6, 2009, from http://www.spj.org/rrr.asp?ref=14&t=


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