I n the world of journalism, there is ongoing debate about who does a better job of reporting the news: citizen journalists or mainstream news outlets.
Citizen journalists are said to have to have their ears closer to the ground, able to relay news faster and cover stories that mainstream outlets can’t or won’t. Mainstream news outlets are said to surpass citizen journalists in accuracy, accountability and readership size.
The question is: Why can’t the two co-exist, working together to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
Citizen participation in journalism isn’t a new concept. Eyewitness reports are an important source for many news stories, while tip lines and letters-to-the-editor are commonplace at newspapers.
The definition of a “citizen journalist,” however, is difficult to pin down. In broad terms, it is an average citizen who is not a trained journalist but that takes an active role in publishing news.
Citizen journalists often use a variety of technologies and techniques to collect and publish information including: texting, e-mails, blogs, smartphones, still and video cameras, blogs and websites like Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.com.
At the scene of newsworthy events and armed with the newest technology, citizen journalists are able to get information out faster than mainstream outlets.
This was seen during the 2007 California wildfires; news outlets used photos and videos submitted by individuals who were at the scene during this major event.
According to Thomas Hollihan, professor of media at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, and reported by readwriteweb.com:
“The real contribution of citizen journalists in a story like [the California wildfires], where whole areas of land are closed off and fields of greatest danger keep shifting, is in having more eyes on the ground,” he said.
“And with so much happening, so quickly, that kind of information can be really powerful — if it is accurate.”
In August 2008, after massive propane explosions in Toronto, Hamilton Spectator senior city reporter Bill Dunphy examined how the issue was covered by mainstream media versus local blogs and citizens, reports J-Source.ca.
Dunphy said citizen journalists were able to get news out faster than mainstream media, and with more images and video. However, they made more mistakes than mainstream media.
Reporters research, interview and write — making sure their story is filed by deadline. The reporter has to get the details right and the facts straight. They’re directly accountable for what they write. There isn’t this same sense of accountability with citizen journalists.
According to a 2004 Canadian Internet Project, 37 per cent of people believe that most or all information the information available online is accurate, while 81 per cent believe at least one half of all available information in reliable.
This inherent trust in online information can pose a problem for citizen journalism.
Andrew Morozov, author of an academic paper titled “Minding the Gap: An Ethical Perspective on the Use of Weblogs in Journalistic Practice,” wrote that bloggers may not be as accurate as mainstream journalists because of a lack of editorial oversight that would include fact checking.
According to Morozov, this is linked to an apparent inability of blogs to maintain the same standards of truthfulness, verifiability, fairness and completeness” that are presumed to exist in mainstream news outlets.
Mainstream news sites also have the advantage of drawing hundreds of millions of visitors each month. These organizations have teams of individuals dedicated to coordinating text, images, video and audio into presentable packages.
While mainstream sites are superior in their accuracy and size of readership, they often lack the speed that citizen journalists can capture and send out information. Citizen journalists can also capture news that is difficult or impossible for mainstream news outlets to cover.
As a result, mainstream outlets have been reaching out to citizen journalists.
Mainstream news sites having been using the techniques and technologies of citizen journalists to report on developing stories and gain a larger audience. CNN’s i-Report and MSNBC’s Citizen Journalist allow users to submit video, digital images and messages during major news events. YouTube Direct, a new service from Google, will allow any news outlet to set up a similar system.
A recent example of citizen journalists and mainstream media coming together was during the major protests occurring in Egypt. Mainstream news outlets were seeking out photo and video from Egyptian citizens, and often consulted Twitter for minute-by-minute updates from individuals at the scene of protests.
Citizen journalists, however, shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for mainstream journalism, or vice versa.
Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN-TV reporter, was quoted by the Centre for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as saying that the so-called war between bloggers and traditional journalists is a “zero-sum game.”
“The two can co-exist,” said MacKinnon. “Blogs are really a conversation about events and facts that journalists are reporting about.”
Instead of competing with one another, the two can compliment one another: citizen journalism bringing the speed while mainstream backs it up with accuracy.
That way, you can have your news cake and eat it too.