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 includes private individuals essentially performing the same tasks that professional reporters perform: They report information (otherwise known as user-generated content). That information can take many forms, from a podcast editorial to a report about a city council meeting on a blog. It can include text, pictures, audio, and video. But it's basically all about communicating information of some kind.

The other main feature of citizen journalism is that it's usually found online. In fact, the emergence of the internet — with blogs, podcasts, streaming video and other web-related innovations — is what has made citizen journalism possible.

The internet gave nonjournalists the ability to transmit information globally. That was a power once reserved for only the very largest media corporations and news agencies.

Citizen journalism can take many forms. Steve Outing of Poynter.org and others have outlined many different types of citizen journalism. Below is a condensed version of Outing's "layers" of citizen journalism, placed into two main categories: semi-independent and fully independent.

Semi-Independent Citizen Journalism

It involves citizens contributing, in one form or another, to existing professional news sites. For example:

  • Readers are posting their comments alongside stories written by professional reporters, essentially a 21st-century version of the letter to the editor. A growing number of news websites allow readers to post comments. In an effort to prevent obscene or objectionable messages, many websites require that readers register in order to post.
  • Readers are 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.
  • Readers are actively working with professional reporters in putting together a story. Reporters might ask that readers with expertise in particular areas send them information on that topic or even do some of their own reporting. That information is then incorporated into the final story.
  • Reader blogs are incorporated into professional news websites. That can include blogs in which readers critique how the news organization is performing.

    Independent Citizen Journalism

    It involves citizen journalists working in ways that are fully independent of traditional, professional news outlets. These can be blogs in which individuals can report on events in their communities or offer commentary on the issues of the day. Examples include:

    Some websites have editors and screen content; others do not. Some even have print editions. Examples include:

    • Daily Heights
    • A slight variation on this theme would be Wikinews, a site similar to Wikipedia, in which anyone can post and edit stories
    • Hybrid sites in which professional and citizen journalists work together
    • Bluffton Today

    Where Does Citizen Journalism Stand Now?

    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. While citizen journalists empower local communities and fill in the gaps of mainstream media, it remains a work in progress. One problem is that citizen journalism has been marred by non-fact-checked, inaccurate reporting, like the political reports that further divide Americans in today's toxic political culture. With inaccurate reporting, the audience is left not knowing who or what to believe.