Understanding Citizen Journalism

The Power and Perils of Independent Reporting

Two businessmen (no faces) sitting at a table recording a podcast
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Citizen journalism involves private individuals, who are normally the consumers of journalism, generating their own news content. Citizens collect, report, analyze, and disseminate news and information, just as professional journalists would, creating what is known as user-generated content.

These amateur journalists produce news in many forms, ranging from a podcast editorial to a report about a city council meeting on a blog, and is usually digital in nature. It can also include text, pictures, audio, and video. Social media plays a major role in disseminating news and promoting citizen journalism content.

Since the general public has 24/7 access to technology, citizens are often the first on-scene for breaking news, getting these stories out more quickly than traditional media reporters. However, unlike professional journalists, citizen journalists may not have conducted the same background research and source verification, which can make these leads less reliable.

Collaborations vs. Independent Reporting

Citizens are able to contribute content, in one form or another, to existing professional news sites. This collaboration can be seen through readers posting their comments alongside stories written by professional reporters, like a 21st-century version of a letter to the editor. In an effort to prevent obscene or objectionable messages, many websites require readers to register in order to post.

Readers are also adding their information to articles written by professional journalists. For instance, a reporter may do an article about disparities in gas prices around town. When the story appears online, readers can post information about gas prices in areas not covered in the original story and even offer tips on where to buy cheaper gas.

This collaboration allows both citizen and professional journalists to craft a story together. Reporters might even ask readers with expertise in particular areas to send them information on that topic or even do some of their own reporting. That information is then incorporated into the final story.

Some amateur journalists operate fully independent of traditional, professional news outlets. This can include blogs in which individuals can report on events in their communities or offer commentary on the issues of the day, YouTube channels where citizens give their own news reports and commentaries, and even unofficial print publications.

Revolutionizing News

Citizen journalism was once hailed as a revolution that would make news-gathering a more democratic process — one that would no longer solely be the province of professional reporters. It has had a significant impact on today's news, with many believing that citizen journalism is a threat to professional and traditional journalism.

Social media has played a vital role in revolutionizing news. Many citizens are the first to report on breaking stories, with eye-witness videos, first-hand accounts, and real-time information, all using social media. Even news outlets will share breaking stories on social media before traditional means, but they have to still follow up with larger stories quickly or risk being outdated with their material in this fast-paced news environment.

Social media doesn't just play a role in disseminating citizen-generated news, it also stands as a source for professional journalists to identify the stories they need to cover. A 2016 study by Cision indicated that more than 50% of professional journalists used social media to find and build stories.

Despite its vast impact on our daily news, citizen journalism is not without its flaws. The biggest concern is the reliability of news, including fact-checking and the risk of incorrect information being disseminated.