In theory, citizen journalism offers many opportunities both to the public and professional journalists. The public could benefit from the accessibility of digital services to form a counter-narrative to mainstream views on the world. Involving citizens in the news process could furthermore make it more relatable to them. This involvement might in turn help professional journalists to fill ‘news gaps’ or see what the public perceives as important. In practice however, citizen journalism is all to often perceived as competition to journalists’ profession, unlawful competition even, as citizen journalists are not bound to deontological reporting principles.
This White Paper gives you an overview of the concrete threats and opportunities of citizen journalism. What are the issues at stake, what are proponents’ and contestants’ arguments and what further actions can be taken by professional journalists?
The paper provides concrete scenarios for journalists to engage with citizen journalism, focus on three guiding principles:
- Embrace citizen journalism, but not blindly. Their lies a great potential in collaboration with citizens, but not every news story lends itself to cooperation with citizens.
- Put quality first, and distribute resources accordingly. Collaboration demands time and resources, and hence, should be worth it. Hence, citizen participation should benefit the quality of the news.
- Consider citizen participation as a form of corporate responsibility. Only looking at citizen journalism from a business perspective might prevent journalists to engage with citizens in a constructive way.
Let the public speak! (but not too loud)
Digitalisation has impacted journalism in many ways. One of these ways is that it has neven been easier for the public to speak out, as spreading content is free and large audiences can be reached through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This has lead to increasing competition from entrepreneurial journalism start-ups as well as non-professional journalists who have grasped this opportunity to produce and distribute journalistic content. We are talking about citizen journalism or “the reporting of news events by members of the public using the Internet to spread the information.” As one can imagine, this can take many shapes and forms, such as a factual report on any element not accounted in the news but also critical commentaries on legacy news. In other words, citizens are creating, augmenting or fact checking the news.
The use of the term has been debated. On the one had, it is referred to as a form of journalism, while many citizens have no professional background or access to resources to provide content that qualifies as journalism. On the other hand, one could say they do similar work, both focusing on issues that are relevant publicly, rather than in a personal context. Why would professional journalists be the only source of news information? This clearly causes tensions, forcing professional journalists in a defensive stance towards citizen journalism.
What are the issues at stake ?
Non-journalists can do what professional journalists do, without it being their job. Citizen journalism “involves active public participation by non-journalists outside of media organizations who can engage in news-making and news-gathering processes without traditional journalistic routines and norms”. Clearly, journalists can experience this as competition: competition for revenues, but also competition in terms of the journalistic identity. As new players engage in news production and distribution, the role of traditional journalism can be questioned. This forms the main issue in the emergence of citizen journalism.
Citizen journalism itself knows a variety of critiques. First, ethical considerations can be questioned, as there is no editorial oversight. Citizen journalism is content generated “for the people and by the people.” Citizen journalists are not bound to a deontological code. In this sense, norms such as objectivity, accuracy and fairness are not necessarily strived for.
Secondly, since anyone can produce citizen journalism, there is a concern about the lack of training and resulting lack of accuracy of citizen reporting. The process in which news is produced appears to often be unsystematic, as they do not have organisational benefits and skills. Citizen journalism might be more susceptible to the production and distribution of mistakes, false information and fake news.
These critiques are in contrast to professional journalists, who are generally paid, trained, have access to needed sources, rely on traditional organisation of production and work within an deontological setting.
As media economist Robert Picard states, journalism is “designed to separate fact from fiction and rumour, to provide information fairly, and to produce accuracy and credibility.”
However, despite these differences, they both report on issues that are relevant within a public context rather than a personal context. Devices such as cellular phones have allowed them to report on any breaking news, possibly even before professional sources do. This means that professional journalists might not have the honour to report about certain elements first. A clear example of this is the death of Whitney Houston, which was reported by a citizen journalist and went viral before the press could report it.
These issues take shape on the backdrop of a severe crisis in journalism’s revenue model, due to the “loss of audiences (…), the diminishing effectiveness of the mass media business model, the lingering effects of the economic crisis, and the impact of digital competitors.” As a result, journalists are trying out new ways to overcome this economic uncertainty. Engaging with citizen journalists is one such way, but not everyone agrees.
Citizen journalism: threats and opportunities
Why citizen journalism can form a threat
Critics see the boundaries of news producers and consumers blurred by citizen journalism. Journalism expert Tony Rogers, states that with citizen journalism you don’t know what you’re getting. He puts it as follows:
The question here, according to Rogers, lies in whether the citizen journalist is doing responsible journalism and is using all the necessary sources to produce a valid report. On top of that, the question is whether the citizen journalist even has access to the needed information in order to do detailed and in-depth reporting. Moreover, if a citizen journalist isn’t making money, this means, according to Rogers that it remains a hobby and possibly not much motivation or time goes into professionalizing their content. Thus, if content from citizen journalists, which may be untruthful, is hard to keep apart from professional journalists’ content, it could threaten the trustworthiness of the latter. This could then be harmful for both readers and professional journalists.
Seeing the strong and new competition this brings about, some hereby may argue that journalists should use citizen journalists’ content as ways to strengthen their own platforms and to be able to co-exist. However, this does not seem to be as easy as it sounds. Paul Mason, economics editor at BBC2’s Newsnight, who generally has been using citizen journalist content as a way to stay informed and retrieve what is seen as important, adds to the discussion that it is extremely difficult to be able to add additional information to what’s already there. He therefore sees the role of professional journalists being threatened when following very intelligent blogs or twitter accounts.
Former BBC journalist Richard Sambrook sees it as a ‘tipping point’, despite his relatively positive outlook on the issue. He concludes by saying that journalists simply do not own the news anymore. It is definite that there are many fears amongst journalists concerning their profession.
Why citizen journalism can bring opportunities
On the other hand, many critics also see the bright side of this emergence. According to earlier mentioned BBC journalist Sambrook, we shouldn’t get carried away by this emergence. It could first off be extremely beneficial for the public, seeing its strength for democracy. In this sense, citizen journalists can fill in the ‘gaps’ of coverage that professional journalists may have missed, offering the public a more complete overview of happenings. They have thus far already shown to play a crucial role by doing this. Blogger Demir Hodzic states the importance as follows:
Researcher Goode adds to this that “citizens increasingly engage in aspects of news making that were previously opaque and, for the most part, off limits.” Citizen journalism is globally relevant, seeing it can correct traditional sources of information, helping create a view of the world that is more realistic and offers more information. Again Rogers adds that the information provided by citizen journalists can offer help to professional reporters, seeing the recent emergence of downsizing of newsrooms that has been going on. So, citizen journalism can be a good thing if it is done responsibly and if it is offering enough quality.
An example of using citizen journalism content as an inspirationis offered by Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC2’s Newsnight, who uses information provided by intellectual citizen journalists to move on a story that is already started, which, as he points us, surely isn’t easy. He states it as follows
“If you are following 10 key economists on Twitter and some very intelligent blogs, you can quickly get to where you need to be: the stomach-churning question, ‘OK, what do I do to move this story on?”
Citizen journalism can hereby offer an interesting scoop on what is seen as important right now according to citizens, which can be mentioned on journalists’ professional news platforms. The idea of citizen journalism and professional journalism co-existing thus has shown to be possible. Matter of fact, the BBC has been successful thus far in doing so.
Lastly, Hodzic argues that traditional journalism should adapt to the media consumers’ needs to be more digital in order to keep up a strong image, adding to it that they have no choice but to accept and support citizen journalism, despite the idea of it being too amateur or irrelevant. Thus, many believe this way of covering news could be extremely important for journalism nowadays. It allows the public to contribute in the news process, making it more relatable to them and allowing them to be heard.
It is clear that professional journalists should not see citizen journalists as too much of a threat. Rogers states it as follows:
“In this day and age, all professional reporters are worried about their jobs. But that’s not because of citizen journalists, it’s because print and online journalism is struggling to develop a sustainable business model at the moment.”
Citizen journalism: which ways forward?
One can now as a professional journalist wonder what actions to undertake, seeing the mixed opinions about it. It is definite that journalists should take caution in fully accepting and implementing the emergence in their news platforms, but without fearing the downfall of their profession. Let’s outline several options and what each option implies for journalists.
Embrace citizen journalism
As communications scholar John Savageau points out “citizen journalism is here to stay.” Traditional journalists can’t prevent citizens from spreading information, and therefore they might as well embrace citizen journalism rather than seeing it as a constant threat. We can see several cases of citizen journalism and professional journalism co-existing, as the BBC examples showed.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, one could say that some citizen journalists could offer new insights that a journalist may have missed or new topics perceived as important by the audience. Professional journalists can benefit from this; they will have more topics to write about, while preventing any further costs. Moreover, a journalist’s role is to be a watchdog. They could help citizens to regain trust in that their watchdog role by involving the public in their investigative practices. Of course, fact-checking citizen contributions is key. But when citizen journalism is done responsibly, it does not have to be a burden, but could actually be a blessing.
Involving citizens could be done in several ways, such as bringing up a new or additional subject found by a citizen journalist, or offering a platform which allows citizen journalists to discuss about a certain topic. Important to note: filtering and double checking contributions, let alone interacting with citizen journalists may be particularly time consuming. And time does not come free.
So, what we mean by embracing journalism is to pay attention to citizen journalists’ contributions, adjust it where necessary and keeping time restrictions in mind and see the value in it. Rather than leaving citizen journalism aside, why not see journalists and citizens really and truly as allies for democracy.
Quality first, distribute resources accordingly
One thing is to believe in the potential of citizen journalism, another is to embrace it in a way that does not harm the journalistic profession, nor by affecting trust, nor by challenging professional journalism’s revenue models. The challenges posed by citizen journalism cannot be seen in isolation from the challenges posed by decreasing incomes and the need to find new revenue streams. Rogers emphasizes this once more, by stating that the major threat for journalists doesn’t necessarily come from citizen journalists, but merely the search for a sustainable business model in the online environment. Scholar Dimitrov believes nuance is also needed when we talk about ‘solutions’ for business models. He states it as follows:
“I argue that no single ‘one size fits all’ measure will protect journalism in the future. Various business and non-profit models as well as different forms of law should uniquely fit national ‘mediascapes’.”
Hence, it is important for journalists to focus first on their core business, which is to deliver relevant information to citizens and customers, and to get revenues for this offering. It might very well be the case that engaging with citizen journalism is something that is difficult to fit into such a business, and that it is a form of journalism that will need to be sustained differently, be it by foundations and charities that want to strengthen participation in the news, by journalists willing to invest their own time and resources in citizen collaboration or by citizens themselves working together and finding revenues through crowdsourcing, etc.
Citizen participation as a form of corporate responsibility
Engaging with citizens is laborious and it might not generate a direct return on investment. But maybe this is a too narrow take on the matter, and seeing this kind of investments as a form of corporate responsibility with impact on the long term might be a more interesting way forward. Letting citizens in as ‘partners in crime’ in performing the watchdog role might remind people of the value that journalism can have.
Here, citizen journalism is linked to media literacy. If citizens are educated on the challenges journalists face by experiencing them first hand, they will know that investing in specific news content might be the only guarantee for quality news. Also, if citizens are educated on metrics and how news could be biased, they may become aware of the fact that they are seeing ‘niche’ news rather than the whole overview. Consequently, they might be more willing to pay for news.
Final notes: putting citizen journalism into perspective
Though the emergence of citizen journalism is something that has brought some complications to professional journalists, we should can’t overestimate the role it plays in journalism’s difficulties nowadays. Not everyone has something to say in first instance, and many of those who do are no stars. Hence, it is important to acknowledge that there are various types of citizen journalists. Sambrook mentions it as follows in one of his speeches:
So, maybe some expert citizen journalists might form a direct competition to professional journalists, but only a small percentage of citizen journalists form a concrete ‘threat’ to professional journalists. Also, news organisations, even if shrinking, remain powerful institutions with privileged acces to sources and resources. Digital technologies might have lowered the threshold for people to speak, that does not mean everyone has the power to be heard. I believe a more collaborative mindset might be beneficial here.
For citizens, participation in the news making proces might be an act of citizenship. It might incite them to engage politically. At the same time, it might increase their understanding of the news making process, and help them appreciate the journalistic profession. Trust in journalism is diminishing in many countries across Europe and this might be one possible way in reversing that trend.
For journalists, these forms of collaboration might not always have a direct return on investment. Still, citizen journalism could offer story leads, a network of people willing to help with gathering or cleaning data, a community of people advocating your brand, etc.
All in all, citizen journalism gives us more reason to be positive than negative about the future of journalism.