The contemporary media landscape is one of turbulence and constant movement. Jobs are being created, reformed and abolished every day, and this can largely be attributed to the advances of technology and social media in the modern age. One product of the industry’s ever-changing environment is the concept of citizen journalism. Doctor Kirsten A. Johnson of Elizabethtown University’s communication department defines citizen journalism as news content produced by ordinary citizens with no formal journalism training[i]. These amateur journalists now have readily available recording, writing and sharing resources: However, they may not necessarily have the knowledge or experience required to produce quality content. This article explores a range of angles on the topic to answer the question begged by society: is citizen journalism a friend or fiend to the news world?
Many consider citizen journalism inferior to professional journalism because the authors lack degrees, qualifications, training and knowledge of industry legislation. An example of how a lack of these attributes can harm journalism was demonstrated by citizen journalist and Independent Australia director David Donovan’s coverage of the fraud case against former Member of Parliament Craig Thomson. Donovan published an article wrongly stating that The Australian journalists Ean Williams and Pia Akerman were being referred to the executive officer of the court for possible contempt of court charges in relation to Thomson’s case[ii]. Donovan’s defamatory post remained on the Independent Australia website for over two months before the falsity was acknowledged. Donovan’s failure to check the court transcript or audio recording prompted him to falsely blame the two innocent journalists, and this could have created serious ramifications for their careers2. Despite no repercussions coming from the misinformation, the circumstance still exhibits how citizen journalists being unaware or non-compliant to industry procedures can potentially spread damaging falsehoods. The below video demonstrates everyday people’s varying opinions on whether amateur sources are reliable.
Music sourced from http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/. Video by Sophie Wheeler.
The progression of technology and rise of citizen journalists have also caused newspaper readership and revenue decline. As portrayed in the first data visualisation below, newspapers have fallen most dramatically from around 2004, which is when media giants Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were introduced and began their roles as major citizen journalism platforms[iii]. As stipulated by Arizona State University graduate Martin Smith, “Facebook and Twitter allow citizen journalists to bring more content, more information, more analysis, and a wider range of niches to the Internet[iv],” which are all features the traditional ink-and-paper medium can hardly compete with. This decreasing readership has also triggered a dramatic drop in print news organisations’ advertising revenue and, as represented in the bottom data visualisation below, professional print news have begun trying to crawl into the digital scene to gain online advertising income. Some believe the print industry is too late to the digital world: Author of The Vanishing Newspaper, Philip Meyer believes America’s print industry will die in the first quarter of 2043.
Citizen journalists enhance the media landscape because they live among everyday society in all corners of the World, and are therefore available at the scene when unexpected news events occur. For instance, citizen journalists have proven beneficial in disaster, conflict and hostage situations, because the Journalism Code of Ethics often prevents professionals from entering affected areas[v]. When hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Coast of the United States in 2012, traditional news teams “found it difficult to get reporters into the areas most affected by the storm[vi].” One of these severely damaged areas was Staten Island, New York. Knowing reporters would be unable to enter the ruins immediately, local photographer Carlos Chiossone filmed a walk-through interview of resident Janice Kennedy’s dilapidated home, and sent it to the CNN network in the hope it would be nationally broadcast. Not only did Chiossone’s footage provide America with a raw, human perspective of the area’s severe destruction: it also highlighted the lack of assistance Kennedy was receiving from social security and her insurance agency, which was quickly recognised and provided once Chiossone’s footage was released[vii]. The below link contains Chiossone’s full video.
Although Chiossone’s coverage of the hurricane disaster was a compassionate and significant contribution to the news sphere, many other amateur recounts of the same disaster “provided dangerous misinformation and fuelled damaging rumours, because it was not appropriately checked and researched8.” This risk of unreliable content being spread is enhanced by citizen journalists’ ability to detach their identity from their work. As a result, individuals’ intent on spreading false or harmful information can do so anonymously without damaging their everyday reputation. In 2014, a video captioned “Syrian hero boy rescues girl in shootout” gained around 5 million views and international attention after surfacing on the internet[viii]. Despite not knowing where, when or who filmed the footage, The Telegraph covered the story, advising their audience the footage was thought to originate from the small Lebanese town of Yabroud10. After the story was published, it was revealed that the footage was filmed by a Norwegian film company, and performed by professional actors. The video’s director, Lars Klevberg told the BBC that he was not uncomfortable about potentially deceiving viewers with the video: He hoped people would react ‘with hope’ when they saw it[ix]. Citizen journalists spreading false information like this is potentially harmful to the news sphere in itself: But when professional sources like The Telegraph further widen its distribution, this jeopardises society’s trust in the entire journalism industry. As stipulated by Columbia University researcher Craig Silverman, “Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promotes misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement[x].” If citizen journalists value readership more than the truth, a serious threat is posed upon the industry.
Professional journalists largely cover stories the majority of their audience will find interesting because ultimately, their stories must generate readership and income. Citizen journalists enhance the news landscape in this respect, because the capabilities of everyday equipment like mobile phones, laptops and social media allow them to freely produce and share content that personally interests them. In many cases, these may be stories that have not reached the restricted attention of mainstream media. For example, the conflict occurring in Syria and Libya has been commentated on by professional news sources, but safety concerns have kept many from visiting and deeply investigating the circumstances. Citizen journalist Eliot Griffiths has filled this void through his outstanding open-source information coverage on his blog Brown Moses[xi]. “I saw so much stuff being produced from Libya that seemed interesting to me, but was being totally overlooked by the mainstream media,” Griffith stated when asked why he started the blog. His commitment to his blog has uncovered vital information, like verifying that Syrian rebels had gained possession of a batch of Croatian weapons[xii], and determining the location of an ISIS training camp[xiii]. His contribution has provided clarity on events in dangerous, hard-to-reach regions, and his powerful influence has now been commended by media giants like The Guardian and BBC news14.
Citizen journalism has also proven beneficial to the category of hyperlocal news. Poynter journalist Jim Romenesko states that “citizen journalism can be a powerful tool for reporting news specific to one community, because people care about their community and have a hunger for finding out what is going on[xiv].” People like Birmingham couple Sas and Marty Taylor have demonstrated this community passion by initiating the Facebook page B31 Voices[xv], and transforming it into a digital bulletin for their neighbourhood. Their page covers everything from missing pet notifications, to community events, to updates on the area’s rising snow levels[xvi]. All of the area’s residents are free to contribute their knowledge and opinions to the posts. Marty said the page aims to bring the community together and provide a more positive and truthful depiction of the region16. Founding director of the Carolina Community Media Project, Jock Lauterer describes amateur hyperlocal coverage as “the kind of journalism practised by newspapers where the readers can walk right into the newsroom and tell the editor what’s on their minds[xvii].” Editor of Sunshine Coast’s The Weekender magazine Sarah Jane Scott provides her view on everyday citizens producing hyperlocal news in the below interview [xviii].
Overall, citizen journalism enhances the contemporary news environment by contributing a raw, human perspective on events, especially unforeseen events that cannot be immediately covered by professional journalists. Thanks to technological advances, everyday devices now allow citizens to produce and share high quality content, even content that is overlooked by professional media coverage. However, citizen journalism has caused a serious decline in newspaper readership and revenue, and major inconsistencies regarding their quality, ethics, credibility and compliance to legislation still exist. So, is citizen journalism a friend or a fiend to the news world? Ultimately, this is determined by the reader: If one recognises that the risks explored throughout this article exist, and takes caution when obtaining information from amateur sources, citizen journalism has the potential to inform, empower and enhance the future of journalism.
WORD COUNT: 1,490
[i] http://jmq.sagepub.com/content/86/2/332.full.pdf+html (accessed 15/05/2016)
[iii] http://historycooperative.org/the-history-of-social-media/ (accessed 20/05/2016)
[v] http://ethicnet.uta.fi/belarus/journalists_ethics_code (accessed 14/5/2016)
[ix] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2835663/Syrian-hero-boy-FAKE-Footage-youngster-dodging-sniper-fire-rescue-girl-actually-shot-Gladiator-film-set-Norwegian-director-using-professional-actors.html (accessed 10/05/2016)
[x] http://phys.org/news/2015-02-fake-news-viral-blame-media.html (accessed 10/05/2016)
[xvii] https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/5833344/file/5842012.pdf (accessed 18/05/2016)
[xviii] Interview with Sarah Jane Scott occurred over the phone on 22/05/2016.
US Daily Newspaper Circulation from 1985-2014 Raw Data (Sourced from Statista.com)
US Newspaper Advertising Revenue from 2003-2014 Raw Data (Sourced from Statista.com)