A last word on “citizen journalism” – hopefully

Camera Work

Like many opinionated rant online commentators about journalism, I get fairly regular e-mails from students asking for my comments on journalism, blogging and social media. Inspired by Jon Bernstein making his responses to one set of questions public, I’ve decided to do the same, if only so I can point any future student who wants to ask about this to the post. Because, really, this is probably my last word on “citizen journalism”.

1) What are your thoughts on citizen journalism?

It’s a horribly dated, misbegotten concept from the mid-2000s that really should have died by now. It’s the bastard child of early online enthusiasts who had an axe to grind with the journalism profession, and wanted to see it wiped out, and the arrogance of journalists, who assumed that as soon as the general public had access to publishing tools, they’d start doing journalism. Instead, as we know, they mainly use these tools to publish pictures of babies, cats and inspirational quotes. That, if nothing else, is the lesson of Facebook.

There are three types of people:

  1. Professional journalists – people who are paid to do journalism
  2. Amateur journalists – people who do journalism for free
  3. Ordinary people – some of whom, once in a while, will do something that might be called “citizen journalism”. 
Sure, the internet has allowed the rise of more amateur journalists – but they existed before. On the whole, they’re either serving unprofitable niches, or, if they find a profitable one, rapidly become de facto professional journalists… The more significant elements has been the ability of eyewitnesses and participants in news events to publish material – information, photos and video – from breaking news events without going through a journalist. There is no such thing as a citizen journalist.
 
There are just citizens, who sometimes engage in the act of journalism.
 
Besides, since when does becoming a professional journalist make you no longer a citizen? I’m both a citizen and a journalist. Therefore, aren’t I a citizen journalist? This concept really wasn’t well thought through… And yes, I regret using the phrase “citizen journalist” in my headline on my Guardian Witness post. That was a mistake. 
 

2) Do you think that organisations with a valued reputation such as the BBC are losing out in terms of journalistic content to amateurs that just happen to be in the right place at the right time?

No, because they’re actively looking for such material, passing it through their social media verification processes and then building it into stories. “Citizen journalism” isn’t competition. It’s a source. 

5) Do you think that citizen journalism endangers any professional aspects of news gathering and the production of news today or do you think it displays a positive effect?

I think it’s a threat to lazy, inaccurate news gathering, as we’ve seen repeatedly. People can correct shoddy journalism publicly far more easily than they could in the past, and journalists’ reputations can be destroyed. It may have a positive effect in the long term, as the media learns how to operate in the knowledge that it will almost always be second reporter on any major breaking news, as people on the groups will end up pushing it out through social media instead. There’s a role for journalists in the social media chaos in the immediate aftermath of a major event – but that’s fodder for another post.