The legal challenges- professional VS citizen journalism

Is citizen journalism a challenge to mainstream media & what are the some of the current ethical and legal issues facing these journalism forms?

Today’s news media is radically changing.

The emergence of new media forms means that the readership of traditional media such as newspapers is gradually declining.

According to an article written by The Circular, today most people source their news from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as well as through personal blogs they find online as this new media market continues to grow and become the leading way of consuming news.

According to information from Ofcom in 2019, after television, the internet is the next most popular way of consuming news and is used by 66% of adults.

Nearly half of people also now use social media to read the news, increasing from 44% to 49% in 2019.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Since 2018, the use of Facebook for news consumption has remained mainly the same whilst Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp has grown significantly.

As a result of this, traditional media forms are challenged.

Pressures on journalism:

This modern way of reading information puts journalists under immense pressure. They need to work faster to produce breaking news before another outlet or individual hears about it, resulting in issues of ‘churnalism’ and the production of fake news.

Budgets for large news organisations are reducing due to falling advertising revenues and the ‘crisis of confidence’, described as “the challenge to the economic viability of newspaper triggered by the digital revolution in publishing and news distribution” by Rasmus Kleis Nielson in his book that discusses the many crises of Western Journalism.

This has resulted in economic upheaval and extensive job loses that will allow investment in the total reorganisation of news companies, such as the BBC.

These changes need to take place in order for organisations to keep up with the “fully digital, on demand change” that warns that traditional media companies will struggle to survive.

With the rise of citizen journalism, some people suggest that citizen reporters provide independent and accurate information from the views of real people that the media doesn’t provide.

But do they?

The Huffington post wrote an article that described citizen journalism as ‘gossip’ rather than a form of professional journalism. It allows anybody to simply voice their views and opinions on news without being required to have any proper training, experience or necessary skill sets to gather and report news.

Citizen journalists can also use their platform freely to express their biased opinions. This could be through informative, yet exaggerated posts that can misrepresent the truth, opening the news agenda to the possibility of abuse.

Lawful and ethical issues:

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Professional journalists must abide by a set of strict laws when reporting as to be careful not to write false news and expose anybody in a damaging way.

Lee Salter talks about such laws in his book ‘Indymedia and the Law: Issues for Citizen Journalism’ that touches upon freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom from arbitrary arrest to name a few.

Sometimes, a story generated by an ordinary member of the public can be difficult to consider professional or validated.

Citizen journalists, such as bloggers have the ability to contribute and change what information is out there yet aren’t taught about professional ethics and accountability.

A blog post written on Social Media Today talks about the ethical issues that citizen journalists surpass, including the issue of bias. Professional journalists are trained to understand both sides of a story and often remain impartial by divorcing bias from their writing.

Participatory journalism however, encourages expression of opinion and doesn’t feel the need to be objective, potentially making reports inaccurate and unreliable.

Similarly, defamation and libel is an issue that occurs when someone publishes a piece of news at the expense of somebody else, i.e. by speaking of them in a way that could affect their reputation. Journalists are trained to understand this libel law and know what they can or can’t say.

In the article ‘Crossing Boundaries- New Media and Networked Journalism’, it explains how ethical journalism should recognise everyone humanely, ensuring images and content posted regard other people with respect.

“the implications of spectacles off violence for ideas about ethics in public life, identity, and the norms that should guide judgements about ourselves and others”- Chouliaraki, 2006

Chouliaraki stated how traditional and new news media can circulate the same images and information easily, yet rules tend apply to one and not the other.

Participatory journalism can lead to wrongful accusations and harassment of individuals as a result of platforms not being policed.

It is easy for citizen journalists to encourage or discourage public action that could concern equal value to human life. They can escape being abusive or discriminating against a particular community or individual without there being serious consequences.

According to Stuart Allen:

“a citizen is a subject of the state, but the internet allows material to transcend the jurisdictional boundaries of the state.”

When posting content, having no boundaries can prove to be unfair and dangerous especially in today’s news cycle where anything can make front page news within seconds. Fake news gathered by someone who hasn’t thought about what their reporting and its consequences can quickly become mainstream news.

Despite these issues, many citizen journalists are not apart of an institution or an organisation and aren’t required to obey a code of ethics like professional journalists are.

Currently, citizen journalists do not meet established press entity requirements. The news they write and post may not be intended for the general public to view unlike professional journalists and isn’t posted in regular intervals but usually only when the individual desires.

They can create journalism with information off lesser credibility and can remain anonymous at all times. As a result, any ethical mistakes will not bring any consequences.

However, full-time journalists have time limits to work towards and are required to produce stories with truthful information that’s main purpose is to educate and inform. They also understand that their names and reputations are always attached to their work.

These factors all work towards blurring the lines between opinion and objective fact.



How can we ensure that citizen journalists share their thoughts that healthily challenge mainstream media whilst also ensuring authority and accountability over their actions?

Niam Kirk, a media analyst and PHD researcher and educator who writes for Institute of Future Media and Journalism states how a wider range of media should be regulated.

A code of practice should be implicated that is similar to what applies to professional journalists but that also considers how to support citizen journalism.

It needs to be understood that the core attraction to citizen journalists is their ability to be able to express their thoughts and talk about the news they want to discuss, not what traditional media puts before them.

Media regulation must also regard that digital platforms give a voice to those who feel they have been wronged or silenced by the mainstream media. These people need to be represented fairly for who they are but incorporated into basic regulation to protect citizens and the public.

It is difficult to extend these laws between journalists and citizens simply because it can be hard to distinguish between the two.

It is hard to know if a person is writing about news of serious public interest or content that deliberately promotes hatred to harass an individual or community for no benefit.

The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog says that the current UK Press Card Authority laws only include journalists employed by media organisations or freelancers.

Active citizen journalism will always be at an advantage compared to mainstream journalism.

If citizen journalists could be educated properly on the laws of professional journalism and take this on board when reporting, these issues may be smoothed out.

However, perhaps then the attraction to citizen journalism may not be the same and the immense scale of it will not be able to abide by these rules.

Aspiring journalist from Kent, interested in exploring into the freedoms of citizen journalism, who loves to travel and is currently living in Bournemouth!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store