news:rewired: A little bit about citizen journalism

This is the second in a number of posts I intend to write following on from news:rewired, the journalism conference held in London last week

It’s the phrase which caused the most excitement at news:rewired, but it’s a phrase which has been knocking around for quite a while: Citizen journalist.

According to Andy Heath, from Demotix, there is little difference between a citizen journalist and a “regular” journalist. That, apparently, was the cue for much arguing in the crowdsourcing session at news:rewired (I say apparently because I was in a session about local media at the time).

But perhaps the fact I was able to follow the row, almost in real-time, on Twitter while at the same time listening to the local media discussion tells us a lot about citizen journalism: that it’s something that comes as second nature to people – telling people what they see and what they know, as they find out about it.

In that respect, I’d argue that Heath is right – citizen journalism and “regular” journalism aren’t that far apart – they’re reporting what they see and know. Levels of verification may vary – and that probably is one of the differences between the two – but the principle of believing what you are reporting is fair and accurate is the same.

Social media tools have made it easier for anyone to tell their information to a larger audience, more rapidly. But in old money, it’s only the same as hearing someone say something to a group of friends in the pub. You wouldn’t repeat it under your own byline unless you knew it was true.

Emily Fraser Voigt, on her blog, says that Heath said they [citizen journalists] were producing “raw data” rather than actual stories and it still falls to professionals to sort through, verify and edit that data.

Of course information from people can be misleading, or incorrect, and that’s always been the case. And that’s probably part of the reason the phrase ‘citizen journalism’ was born – to keep it apart from more traditional journalism in the eyes of those working in journalism.

The problem with that theory, though, is that it isn’t necessarily seperate in the eyes of the user. And that’s the challenge for “big media” – to find a way of working with citizen journalists, and use the millions of eyes and ears which are now out there sharing information online – to produce content which appeals to users, and which still stands apart from the crowd.

Another obvious difference is the fact that citizen journalists generally don’t do it to get paid, and that’s perhaps where part of the row stems from – the fear among paid journalists that someone is coming along and doing what they do, but for free.

And it’s a concern for me, too. I’m a journalist, and I get paid to do it. I don’t want to see paid, professional media to fall by the wayside and for the principles of journalism – fair, accurate reporting and holding those in power to account – to be the sole responsibility of people who do it just for the love of it.

I don’t say that because I feel the people who carry out a journalistic function can’t be trusted with maintaining those principles, but because it’s much easier to put pressure on someone who is doing something because they like to than it is to bring pressure on someone supported by a larger organisation.

But if we do find ourselves in that situation, it won’t  be because citizen journalists have come along and taken the audience away from us, it’llbe because we haven’t done a good enough job in convincing an audience to stick with us, or found the right way to make money from it.

And that’s why I find the row over “citizen journalism” a bit of a side show in the greater scheme of things. Ironically, while that argument was raging downstairs, Philip John, of the Lichfield Blog was touching on the same issue himself in the local media session.

He made the point that many people bracketed as citizen journalists don’t see themselves as journalists at all, and that they probably don’t want paying either. So if the established media and journalists want to work with the people who don’t call themselves citizen journalists, a relationship which benefits both needs to emerge.

And perhaps the first part of that relationship involves the ditching of labels. Journalists should always seek to verify their sources and information, regardless of where it comes from. Citizen journalism doesn’t change that.

6 comments

  1. I find this debate about citizen journalism fascinating because it becomes the means through which “regular” journalists reflect upon and articulate what they think they are. I was a “regular” journalist for a couple of decades but I don’t see verifying my information as being what distinguished me. Nor do I think the capacity to be “objective” was the defining feature.

    I came into journalism believing that a journalist was someone who communicated through the media. I still think that’s what a journalist is even in a world where communicating via the media is something that is available to almost anybody. Anyone can be a journalist if they so wish. It’s just that some are much better at that communication than others.

  2. The difference between a ‘citizen journalist’ and a professional journalist is the same as the difference between amateurs and professionals in any walk of life.

    I’ve always believed a professional is someone who can turn up at any time and do a first rate job, every time, whether they feel like it or not, and whether what they are doing is of personal interest to them or not.

    In media, amateurs put out whatever’s in front of their eyes (twitter reportage) or whatever they have a personal interest in (special interest bloggers). There are, unsurprisingly, hundreds of blogs offering record and gig reviews.

    Professional journalists, on the other hand, work a different way round. The first question they ask is not ‘what am I interested in?’ but ‘what is my audience interested in?’. Hence local papers love to cover stories of cuts in care homes and services for the elderly. The journalists themselves probably have more passion for gig reviews or whatever, but they know their audience doesn’t.

    So the difference between a media amateur and a media professional is on the one hand people who publish primarily for their own interest, and whose material may or may not interest the audience; and on the other hand people who publish because they believe their audience will b interested in it.

    1. I hadn’t thought of it like that but your comment makes complete sense – and that’s why it is so important we make sure we’re covering the news which interests people?

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