On new media: ‘citizen journalism’

The term ‘citizen journalism’ – to denote the contribution of news by non-professional journalists – caused great upset  at the news:rewired conference.

It was bandied about in a panel discussion on ‘crowdsourcing’ between Kate Day, communities editor of Telegraph.co.uk , Ruth Barnett, SkyNews‘s first Twitter correspondent, and Andy Heath, comissioning editor of the ‘citizen newswire’ Demotix (a company that buys content from citizen journalists and sells it to organisations like the BBC).

The audience at was, for the most part, made up of professional journalists.  Many of this group had been journalists since the days of Fleet Street and many  protested that the term ‘citizen journalist’ devalued their professionalism.

Perhaps they are right to feel threatened. The very nature of the media is changing, rapidly. But I am not convinced that so-called ‘citizen journalists’ do pose a threat to professionals or to mainstream media organisations. 

It is true non-journalists, who outnumber journalists, are more likely a witness to an unexpected, news-worthy event. It is true, also, that technology can turn non-journalists into ‘citizen’ or ‘accidental’ journalists (such as the man who snapped the Hudson plane crash on his mobile) and that channels like Twitter allow them to spread their news themselves. That social media can turn home videos into ‘user-generated content’.

And if all of us are journalists, perhaps none of us are journalists. In a nice blog for the Telegraph titled ‘Why journalism is like cooking’ (written after the conference), Kate Day argues that it’s not the person but the result that matters – not the chef or the hack but the food and the story.

But while citizen journalists have the potential to break news faster than professionals, major media organisations retain the greater credibility. News-consumers rely on such organisations to verify stories, even – perhaps particularly – if they were broken by non-professionals.

All three speakers on the panel emphasised the need to verify ‘crowdsourced’ information, just as they would any other source. Demotix check the coded information within the photos they receive to determine whether they really depict what they say they depict. SkyNews took those Iranians more seriously who had been tweeting news before the protests than those who began once they realised the West was following.

Demotix illustrates well the balance of power between citizen and professional journalists. Their business model – buying from citizens to sell to professionals  – works because the mainstream outlets remain the most comprehensive disseminators of news.

***  

Citizen journalism is not just un-threatening but potentially helpful to major media outlets. Their audiences now talk back, and, if they ask them questions, they not only create stronger communities (= stronger ‘brands’ and more £) but get answers that can inform investigative journalism.

Mainstream media outlets that use social media effectively also save time and money. When the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, SkyNews urged its Twitter followers to check their local MPs’ claims: the Quentin Letts bell tower example was uncovered that way. ‘Crowdsourced’ information is often given freely and worth money: professionals would be foolish to ignore it.

Though the role of major news outlets is moving from breaking to verifying, they retain the lion’s share of the audience – many of whom are now willing to help them do their job. That’s got to be more help than hindrance.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on February 21, 2010.

One Response to “On new media: ‘citizen journalism’”

  1. […] Guardian.co.uk has blogs: so do students, mums and corporate lawyers (cf. my blog post on “citizen journalism”). That’s why people talk about the internet being […]

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