Citizen reporting: the past or future of journalism?

The battle between citizen journalism and traditional journalism has been raging for a while. The origins of the term ‘citizen journalism’ are not clear, but the Centre for Citizen Media blog lists one of the first ever citings of the term in a piece by the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Klobuchar, “Work won’t be as lively without her,” dated October 12, 1988:

“As a newspaperwoman, she been a welcome guest in hundreds of thousands of homes for a quarter of a century and as a citizen-journalist she has been a force for good in her community just as long.”

While the term itself has been in use for at least 25 years, its definition has changed with advance in technology and the increased empowerment of the ordinary citizen, who began to get a wide access to powerful, inexpensive tools of sharing information.

But what did this mean for traditional journalists? Was their profession in danger of being usurped by their very audience? It’s a question that has been on the rounds for a while and isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

A classic case in point was the recent panel discussion at London’s Frontline Club about the future of journalism, which eventually and ironically turned into one primarily focussed on the generation-old concept of citizen journalism.

The event, called “Eyes Wide Shut? Will the future of journalism mean we are better informed”, was organised at the launch of Index on Censorship magazine’s Autumn 2014 edition. The panel, chaired by David Aaronovitch, a columnist at The Times, included senior journalists Richard Sambrook, Raymond Joseph and Amie Ferris-Rotman, and Rachel Briggs, deputy director of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue.

The panel discussion was meant to tackle questions about “whether changes within journalism will leave the public knowing more or less than they have in the past; will new technologies bring us greater depth of information? Will news survive or will celebrity gossip take over? Will citizen journalism carry more weight than traditional TV channels?”

However, as the discussion began, the panelists soon found themselves talking mainly about citizen journalism and user-generated content.

Briggs, who is also director of Hostage UK, brought up the example of the family of British hostage David Haines who was beheaded by Isis in September.

David’s brother Mike released a video message about how he felt about his sibling and the people responsible for his murder. Briggs felt that Mike was able to use this concept of citizen journalism to get across a “very positive message of unity and peace” directly to the world.

Briggs also said that citizen journalism can work both ways and can also be used by the “bad guys”. She said, “Isis has turned itself into a broadcaster; it effectively runs its own news channel; it has become a publisher and a commissioning editor. What Isis is doing at the moment is exhibiting citizen journalism par excellence.”

However, Briggs’s argument was refuted by audience member and photojournalist John D McHugh, who said that Isis’s media campaign was not citizen journalism, but mere propaganda.

Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff University and former director of global news at the BBC, took a narrower view, saying that journalism is about independent scrutiny, public interest responsibility and involves real skills which “not everybody has”.

“I personally don’t like the term ‘citizen journalism’,” he said. “Most people who are uploading pictures aren’t doing any thinking themselves. They just see something and want to share it. A lot of them don’t have the skills or the editorial judgement.”

Joseph, former regional editor of South Africa’s Sunday Times, concurs and prefers to use the term ‘citizen reporter’, rather than ‘citizen journalism’, because citizens are “not bringing any journalistic insight into the story.”

“I don’t believe everyone is a journalist,” he said. “I think everyone has a story to tell, but whether it is journalism I would question that. What we need to do as journalists is take that into account and do the journalism. Don’t leave it to others to do the journalism. They can do the reporting, but we need to do the journalism.”

Ferris-Rotman said that although citizen reporting has its merits, on the whole “it needs to be taken with caution”.

Like most panel discussions, the event ended without any concrete conclusion on the topic. However, it was clear that even if citizen journalism, or citizen reporting, has been in existence for at least two decades, it still forms the cornerstone of discussions on the future of journalism.

Featured image courtesy: (Creative Commons)

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