Citizen journalism is the process in which the public collect and disseminate news and information by use of the Internet. The rise of social media has enabled users to play an active part in news production.
What is citizen journalism?
Citizen Journalism is an umbrella term for any non-professional who gathers news and disseminates it to the public.
There has always been some amateur involvement in news production. Indeed, citizen journalism is as old as journalism itself.
However, ‘citizen journalist’ as a phrase entered the popular vocabulary in the aftermath of the tsunami in south Eastern Asia in December 2004. In the absence of journalists at the scene, ordinary people took it upon themselves to use digital technology to report news.
Most citizen journalists have no journalistic experience. Some may be experienced journalists who have left the profession. Others may be exclusively linked to a particular social movement or protest group.
They are free agents on the spot, able to provide immediate, independent and speedy accounts of news events.
These non-professionals disseminate news through personal blogs, photographs or video footage captured from personal mobile cameras, or local news written by residents of a community.
Today, the term ‘citizen journalism’ is not used so much now, because it is so common place.
How citizen journalism developed
Ordinary citizens have always played an important part in news reporting. Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, word of mouth was the main source of news.
His invention made mass communication across great distances possible for the first time. And so, journalism, as we know it today, was created.
By the mid‐nineteenth century, high-speed presses and cheap wood-based newsprint made large newspaper circulations possible. As a result, newspapers were becoming increasingly professionalised in all major countries.
These technical and cultural changes began to marginalise the citizen journalist. Even so, members of the public continued to play an important role as sources of useful tip-offs for newsrooms hungry for a compelling news story.
The rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s brought new opportunities. The abundance of electronic gadgets, such as mobile phones, tablets, and other portable devices soon led to a rapid rise in citizen journalism.
Today, videos and stills can augment professionally shot footage to give a broader picture. More and more people are sending their news stories and pictures to television companies. Because they are on the spot when the action happens, their shots of road accidents, natural disasters or local sporting events are immediate. Moreover they can be transmitted to a newsroom without delay.
News reported by the ordinary citizen often involves a simple reporting of facts and news. Much of this is largely ignored by the mainstream media. Members of the public may be the only source of information when:
- a news story breaks suddenly
- the official media cannot report the facts because of censorship
- mainstream media regard a story as insignificant
Citizen journalism can provide evidence of an event and present another side to a story. However, ordinary citizens are not necessarily impartial. Different aims and ideals may drive a person to rely on alternative sources of validity and authority other than those which mainstream journalists adopt.
For instance, during the worst of the Syrian civil war thousands of clips were uploaded on various social network sites. They included “trophy videos” from Syrian military torturers, and footage from local families and citizens caught up in the conflict.
Bypassing the gatekeeper
Citizen journalists are free to bypass the “gatekeeping” process which traditional media employ. With the opportunity to do their own publishing, they can decide for themselves what is news and what is not. They may, therefore, develop a different set of criteria or news values to validate their reporting.
During the uprising of 2011 in Egypt, activists used social media to launch their protest against President Ḥosnī Mubārak. They organised themselves by forming groups on the social networking website Facebook.
The YouTube channel has provided a platform for citizen journalists to reach an international audience. Modern technology enables them to reach a far wider audience than the traditional news outlets. As a result, some have gained much popularity for their reporting and commentary.
How a mobile phone helped to expose an unlawful killing
At times, a member of the public may stumble upon evidence crucial to the reporting of a story that the official media have missed. One early instance of this is the well documented case in 2009 of the death of an English newspaper vendor.
Ian Tomlinson collapsed and died during a protest rally in London. That afternoon, shortly before his death, a police officer had struck him. But no one from the official media had witnessed this event.
The initial postmortem examination, conducted two days after his death, concluded that he had died of natural causes following a heart attack.
However, a New York banker had shot video footage of the police officer hitting Tomlinson just minutes before his death. The footage showed the officer wielding a baton and pushing him to the ground. When the banker realised its significance, he passed it on to The Guardian newspaper, which published it on their website.
Other witnesses responded and the footage was later used as evidence. A further post mortem revealed that Tomlinson had died of internal bleeding in the abdomen. A criminal inquiry followed. In May 2011 an inquest jury found that Tomlinson had, in fact, been unlawfully killed.
Citizen journalism as a source of disinformation
In today’s brave new world, anyone with a computer can access the internet for information. Citizen journalism has expanded its worldwide influence despite continuing concerns over whether citizen journalists are as reliable as trained professionals. A wealth of material is available, but can it all be trusted?
Citizen journalists range from well-respected correspondents working from a war zone to individuals compiling news stories from their personal computer.
Professional journalists should stick to the principles of responsible news reporting. However, there is no guarantee that a citizen journalist will do so. For instance, trained professionals will look at both sides of a story before they write a report. An amateur may unwittingly publish a biased account.
Insufficient knowledge of media law also presents problems. Many citizen journalists lack proper legal training. Some amateurs are weak on libel law. They may accuse the wrong suspects of a crime and disrupt police investigations. Moreover, they may overlook copyright issues and violate the rights of others when they use their photos or videos.
The popularity of social media gives rise to other more serious global issues such as deliberate fabrication of stories.
Fake news breeds conspiracy theories and distorts politics. Recently, the number of websites that specialise in spreading fake news has grown at an alarming rate.
The World Economic Forum has defined this insidious trend of growing disinformation as one of the world’s most urgent concerns.