The Pros and Cons of Citizen Journalism
One of the defining characteristics of social media is that it allows everyday people to join the conversation on virtually any topic they choose. Online vehicles such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogging create an opportunity for the public to express an opinion, contribute knowledge, and engage in debate with other social media users. This online freedom and universal access has given rise to a sort of online journalism, more commonly referred to as citizen journalism.
Citizen journalism, as defined by Wikipedia, is “the concept of members of the public playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” Social media aids in this process by equipping the public with highly accessible, real time methods of accessing and reporting news. Popular examples of citizen journalism at work are the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the day an airplane carrying 150 passengers landed in the Hudson River. When the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, it wasn’t news journalists and reporters who captured the scene as it played out, but rather New York City residents and tourists who just happened to have their cameras handy. When the airplane landed in the Hudson, NBC did not have professional journalists on hand to break the news of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” No, it was an innocent bystander with the Twitter name jkrums, who minutes after the plane splashed down tweeted, “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy!” The rest of Twitter nation quickly followed suit and the social media site practically blew up with news of the event. And this was all before the folks at NBC even knew what was happening.
These examples highlight some of the advantages of citizen journalism. Professional reporters cannot be everywhere and cannot cover every event taking place, especially those that are unplanned. Citizen journalists can alert the media to breaking news, and provide information and visual documentation of events that can help to inform news stories. Marc Wadsworth, editor of The Latest website, believes that people who participate in citizen journalism “have the hand on the pulse of what’s really happening out there.” Some newspapers and news sites, especially smaller ones who may have limited staff, rely on citizen journalists to contribute comments and blog posts about their stories in order to broaden the news they cover and make the stories more interactive. Some believe that citizen journalists present a fresh and more exciting angle on a story, making the news more engaging and “less stuffy.”
The added excitement and story angles that citizen journalists provide can also be seen as disadvantages. One of the primary aims of journalism is to be objective and present a fair view, a code by which citizen journalists do not always abide. They can sometimes let their personal opinions seep in, resulting in slanted versions of the truth. When professional journalists receive information, they routinely fact check against a number of credible sources. Citizen journalists, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, check their facts and there’s often no way of knowing if they have or not. The lines can be blurred between them and professional journalists and the public might not distinguish between the two.
With the rise of citizen journalism and the high prevalence and accessibility of social media, I would also argue another significant disadvantage. Stories that make the news tend to be more negative in their scope. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and a passenger plane landing in the Hudson River are cases in point. It’s one thing to accidentally find yourself on the scene of events such as these and seize the opportunity to provide first-hand, real time media coverage, but to purposefully put yourself in dangerous situations in order to document them to the world is something else all together. Citizen journalists in Egypt and elsewhere in The Middle East have been doing this since the early 2000s. They attended demonstrations against then-President Mubarak, blogging and reporting out to the public. Not only did they put themselves in harm’s way, but many were also arrested and put in jail for speaking out against political figures and parties, all at the expense of being first on the scene to report the news. More recently, citizen journalists have utilized Twitter and Facebook to coordinate protests and share information in the continued campaign to oust Mubarak. A “Facebook revolution” ensued as protesters to spilled over into the streets of Cairo, and Egyptian authorities were forced to block Facebook and Twitter before the situation escalated any further. Similar social media revolutions powered by citizen journalists have played out during the recent riots in London and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations here in the U.S.
Sure, professional journalists put themselves in harm’s way every day to cover news around the globe, but they have been trained to handle potentially dangerous situations and are equipped with the resources and staff to protect themselves as best they can. This is not the case for citizen journalists. There is certainly much to be gained from having everyday people in the midst of breaking news stories, documenting them as they play out from a first-hand view, but at what price? I support citizen journalism as a complement to professional journalism, especially in the world of social media that we currently live in, but I also believe there is a line to be drawn. How much are people willing to risk for the truth?