Citizen Journalism Today

A step by step guidebook for professional journalists


In short

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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: 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.

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.

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.

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:

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.


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:

Journalism trends & technologies

A collection of White Papers addressing new trends & technologies in journalism, brought to you by experts-to-be from the Master in Journalism and Media in Europe at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. References: https://medium.com/@ikepicone/references-4d8e004593a

Olivia Marie Fonseca

Written by

Journalism trends & technologies

A collection of White Papers addressing new trends & technologies in journalism, brought to you by experts-to-be from the Master in Journalism and Media in Europe at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. References: https://medium.com/@ikepicone/references-4d8e004593a

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