Citizen Journalism vs Professional Journalism

The rise of social networking and media-sharing websites has allowed for a form of user generated content called citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is based upon public citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing, and disseminating news and information.” It often occurs when people who aren’t journalists publish user generated content onto online media platforms.

And with wireless Smartphone’s becoming progressively more advanced, witnesses with a camera are rarely far away from an unfolding event – especially when the social norm is to document almost everything. This unique form of journalism saves time, money and exertion for qualified journalists; qualities that, in the journalism industry, are extremely valuable.

Citizen journalism also adds depth to news stories. The content may be ‘amateur photography’ but it’s also an ‘eyewitness video’, with real events documented in real time with real reactions. And with wireless Smartphone’s becoming progressively more advanced, witnesses with a camera are rarely far away from an unfolding event – especially when the social norm is to document almost everything. This unique form of journalism saves time, money and exertion for qualified journalists; qualities that, in the journalism industry, are extremely valuable.

Citizen journalism also adds depth to news stories. The content may be ‘amateur photography’ but it’s also an ‘eyewitness video’, with real events documented in real time with real reactions.

During the bombings in Bali, Indonesia in 2002, Australian news stations received hundreds of user generated content capturing the event. This was one of the first major examples of citizen journalism contributing to the local newsgathering process.

However, citizen journalism must be taken with a grain of salt. While it may be easy for citizen journalists to post their content on social media websites, the lack of verification, balance and context can often cause the content to be twisted or manipulated into losing its meaning. Examples of this are often seen in war zones, where citizen journalists take to the streets to spread truthful information, despite constraints from their government, police or laws. This type of content can often turn into a worldwide game of Chinese Whispers and have detrimental effects on the citizen journalist/s.

“There is no gate-keeping here,” said Graham Cairns, owner of Cairns Communications, to students at QUT. “People put up videos without any context what-so-ever. Now, part of our job has always been to explain the context. But if people are putting the video up without the context how can we explain it? This is something that we have to – as journalists – have to come to deal with.”

Natalie Bochenski of the Brisbane Times agrees, stating: “Gathering information from different sources can be a risk, because you don’t necessarily know if anything is true. I think most people, however, when they’re near something happening, want to record it and show was is happening. Most people don’t have the urge to stray from the truth in front of them, so I think on one level that makes them trustworthy.”

Citizen journalism also has legality issues – one in which there is a danger of a society where everyone becomes a snoop. If, for example, a media broadcaster published never-before-seen user generated content in which a group of citizens trespassed on private property to film a nuclear test, then the broadcasters themselves would land in hot water.

There could be national security, trespassing, invasion of privacy and possibly even defamation cases. Furthermore, the footage could encourage public citizens to engage in copycatting, law-breaking and self endangerment. And then, what if it was a hoax?

This is what differentiates citizen journalists from professional journalists. Professional journalism is considered “a job with rules and ethics; thus it cannot be improvised through ordinary people without any relative qualification.” However, this does not mean citizen journalism is unadvised; rather that journalists must approach it with caution.

Therefore, a journalist must ask themselves a series of questions before publishing user generated content. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. Did the citizen endanger themselves in order to capture an event? 
  2. Did the citizen create an incident in order to capture it? 
  3. Did the citizen encourage an incident in order to capture it?
  4. Did the citizen capture the content with the aim of gaining funds? 
  5. Does the citizen have malicious intentions?
  6. Does the user generated sensationalize an incident?
  7. Is the user generated content subject to bias?

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