Among the way-too-many Christmas presents we got this year was the boxed DVD set of The Newsroom, Season 2. It’s a controversial series, but I confess that I love it: the dialogue, the ethics, the insults, the transient victories… The image of the socially-conscious, caffeinated and relentlessly focussed news producers and anchorpersons (or is it anchorpeople?) inspires hope and optimism that, with such determined professionals dedicated to bringing us the truth, injustices can be fixed and the world will become a fairer place. The series reflects, especially in Season 3, how much the news business has changed over the past few years. Traditionally newsrooms have relied on reporters on the ground for their information, perhaps seasoned official sources, occasionally a disgruntled leak. And The Newsroom features all of those. But an increasing role is being played by thematic channels, by page views, and especially by the social media.
Enter the “citizen journalist”. These days, with high-quality cameras in most pockets and handbags, and with publishing media just a few taps away, the role of “journalist” is changing. Citizen journalism, user-generated content, social reporting… Whatever you choose to call it, the concept is changing how we consume news. No longer are we limited to a few reputable channels and publications. What we consider “news” is popping up on Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, content-curation sites, Tumblr, even Instagram… We have an almost infinite array of choices of where to get our information from, and a vast range of possible sources.
But with so much “news” out there, how do we find the relevant stories and sources? How do we know what information to trust? Most of us have social media feeds that we follow, as well as bloggers whose writing we like. But are they “citizen reporters”? Being a commentator is not the same as being a journalist. Curating is not the same as reporting. And news is not the same as speculation.
For our daily news consumption, we look not only for trust-worthiness, but also reliability and dependability. We want to keep up with what’s going on in the world, and citizen journalists can’t do that for us. They can tell us about what’s happening around them, for a limited window of time. But once they start reporting continually, or once they broaden their brief to include other areas, once they start to accumulate a regular number of people who read what they produce, once they start to depend on that activity to make a living, they’re no longer “citizen journalists”. It becomes their job. They’re professional. Unaffiliated, maybe, but still professional.
However, the professionals are relying more and more on the amateurs, news media are using more and more on “unofficial” sources for their content. Dozens of platforms collect and channel citizen reporting, making it easier for news outlets to find user-generated content that they can use. As for trust issues, it is easier than ever to verify information. Did that landslide really just happen, or is it last year’s footage recycled? Is that bomb-wrecked market in Gaza or in Syria? Geo-location, cross-referencing, reverse image searches and source-confirming are a few clicks away, and can verify or disprove where an image or a text came from.
But back to the main theme: what is “citizen journalism”? Much has been written about it, much has been claimed, and as with anything digital that changes the way we do things, much of it is hype.
Citizen journalism is not a “disruption” of news. News is still news. The fact that there seems to be more of it than ever is more a case for better filters and better criteria for deciding what to believe and which sources to trust.
Nor is it a re-definition of reporting. Re-shaping it, possibly. Broadening its scope, definitely. But reporting is still about informing and communicating events that impact the community, be it local or global. “Reporting” was never about who was doing it.
Nor is it about “democratizing the news”. Yes, anyone can now become an “amateur journalist”, but that does not make the distribution and reception of the news democratic. That is still very much controlled by big media. A tweet from CNN will get much more traction than a tweet from your neighbour. It would be “democratic” if we could choose from all available feeds. But we simply can’t scan everything. The “breaking news” alerts that we actually see still tend to come from the “professionals”, given their reach.
Where do they get their news from? Increasingly from “citizen journalists”.
And there you have it. Citizen journalism is about democratizing the sources. Anyone can now be a source of news-worthy information. And this benefits anyone looking for location-specific, event-specific updates or problems. And here, “anyone” includes the main news outlets, traditional or otherwise. Platforms such as social media or user-fed aggregators make it relatively easy to locate and verify stories. Your location-specific, event-specific report can hit the headlines. You can call attention to problems, or inform of surprising and important developments. You can trigger international interest.
But your main value will be as a source. The main channels will need to verify and edit, and will no doubt incorporate your material, if it is useful, into a larger coverage. You contribute to the news. But you are going to need an audience, which on your own is difficult to achieve if you are not a professional writer with a long track record and a large following. Even the “citizen journalism” websites depend on commitment, reliability, and quality of reporting. Once you demonstrate all three, and especially once you end up getting paid by the outlets that take up your story, I would say you are a “journalist”. No need to qualify it with “citizen”.
Which brings me to another point: I take issue with the term “citizen journalism”. So the professionals aren’t citizens? And anyway, citizens of where? “Social reporting” is also a weak term. It incorrectly implies that you limit yourself to posting on social media, or that you write about social events. “User-generated content” is just as misleading. It implies that you are a “user”, but of what? Of the Internet? I believe that the professionals are users, too. So what is a better name? “Amateur journalism” sounds a bit denigrating, even though it may be accurate.
I propose “civic reporting”, as it speaks to the motive, which I believe is one of the main differences between the professionals and the non-professionals. Professionals are supported, economically and often also logistically, but a media outlet. I’m not saying that their motives are purely economic, in fact I’m sure that they’re not, but journalism is how they make their living. Civic reporters aren’t in it for the money. Obviously they wouldn’t say no, but their main motive is to report, to get the news out, to draw attention to a situation or a problem. A responsibility, a duty, a civic instinct. And something we should encourage. Just as we should encourage the traditional newsrooms to re-think their formats, to come up with simple collaboration tools, to refine their verification protocols, and to accept that the power of communication is being redistributed.