1970: A journalist stands outside the Supreme Court, anxiously waiting for the Court's decision on a case. While she waits, she also sifts through her thick folder of B-matter (background info) that she plans to reference in her hard news piece.
An hour later, the Court issues its decision. An official representing the Court speaks to the journalists camped around the Court and relays the verdict. The Supreme Court's work is done, but the journalist's work has just begun. She heads back to the newsroom and produces her piece, then spends another hour to work in her editor's feedback.
Later, her efforts pay off: Her editor is happy with the final draft and sends it off to the newspaper's layout team. The journalist's piece is formatted into the front page, and the layout team carefully checks the rest of the newspaper before sending it off to the printing press. The next morning, the journalist's story is on hundreds of thousands of doorsteps, printed underneath the venerable New York Times logo.
2012: A young college student is at a rally outside the Supreme Court, reading SCOTUSBlog (an acclaimed blog following Supreme Court news, sponsored by Bloomberg Law) on his phone. He's anxiously waiting for the Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act. A few seconds later, he notices a new SCOTUSBlog post; it announces that the Supreme Court did uphold the Act as constitutional. He yells the news to his fellow classmates; they erupt in cheers. Amid the cheering he opens up the Twitter app on his iPhone and tweets, "The court has spoken! They've upheld the Affordable Healthcare Act! #Obamacare." His tweet is now visible to Twitter's 241 million monthly active users.
Before the advent of the Internet, the production and dissemination of information was limited to a select few. Only the publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers had the printing presses and delivery services capable of printing information and sharing it with a few million people. Published news pieces came from professional journalists. Publishing content was more of a privilege than a right.
Today, anyone can publish content online. In a matter of seconds, anyone—regardless of age, education, or experience—can create a blog or Twitter account and write or tweet about local events. A high school student can write about a presidential rally in her town in a blog post and put it online for anyone to see. No longer are the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today the only purveyors of news content; the Internet has democratized the nature of writing and publishing. It has democratized the nature of journalism.
But in an Internet age, is any news-oriented blogger or Twitter user a replacement for the traditional journalist? Or are these "citizen journalists"—the technology-empowered masses—another part of the journalism ecosystem that complements traditional journalists and their work? Ultimately, citizen journalists play a significant role in the journalism world, but they are not a replacement for traditional journalists and publications like The New York Times. Optimally, citizen journalists and traditional journalists work together toward the same goal: to tell the news and stay true to the story. To understand the role of the citizen journalist and what differentiates them from traditional journalists, we need to define who citizen journalists are and what they do.
Defining the Citizen Journalist
A citizen journalist is a non-professional reporter who plays "an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information," according to the American Press Institute. A person who performs one or a combination of these actions is creating or spreading news and is thus a part of the journalistic ecosystem. For instance, thousands of people in the Northeast became citizen journalists during the October 2012 earthquake in Maine and its surrounding states. Many took pictures of any earthquake damage and posted the images on Twitter—an instance of news information collection. More tweeted about their location and the severity of the earthquake in their area. The Weather Channel even compiled people's pictures and tweets about the earthquake to help contextualize its intensity and scope.
Citizen journalists can also perform valuable news analyses, even if they do not have an academic background in news writing. Before Nate Silver became a famous statistician and election poll analyst at The New York Times, he was a citizen journalist. Back in 2008 and preceding his career at The Times, Nate Silver performed his statistical analysis on his own blog, FiveThirtyEight.com. On his then-independent blog, he correctly predicted the electoral outcome of 49 states in the 2008 presidential election. Using his statistics skills, he also correctly predicted the results of 35 Senate races that year. Citizen journalists, like Nate Silver circa 2008, may offer unique analytical skills that might not otherwise be found among trained career journalists. The Internet and social media make it possible for people with considerable skills and expertise to share their insights.
Today, most information is spread through the Internet and social media. The tendency for some online content to go viral—become extremely popular across several social networks—can help spread important news. Citizen journalists are responsible for disseminating news via social media and encouraging their peers to follow current affairs. Their contributions help foster a more news-oriented population.
To gain a deeper understanding of how citizen journalists interact with the news, we must first understand their preferred social networks, like Twitter, blogs, and YouTube.
Tools of the Trade
Twitter is a social network that allows people to "tweet" 140-character messages and pictures out to the world (as long as their profile is not private). Users can "follow" one another to receive each other's tweets. Tweets can also be grouped into topics if they contain "hashtags," or phrases that start with the # symbol and are followed by a search term. #election2012 is one example of a hashtag, which Twitter users created to group together tweets about the 2012 presidential election. Finally, Twitter users can "retweet" (repost) each other's tweets to show their own followers and increase a tweet's popularity.
Due to the concise nature of all the information shared on Twitter, the social network is useful for collecting bits of information, like pictures documenting events ranging from political rallies to local fires. Twitter can also be used for live reporting: People can tweet as new developments arise and keep other people up-to-date with a current event. Twitter is especially valuable for instantly sharing bites of information with a large audience. Thanks to the hashtag function, tweets about a topic can be compiled in one place for someone to easily read and share. Anyone can access Twitter and see public tweets, even without an account.
Blog posts are text entries of unlimited length; these posts can also incorporate photos. While blogging can take place on many platforms—Wordpress, Typepad, and Tumblr, to name a few—all blogs are simply websites where one can publish blog posts. Given that blogs have no space constraints, they permit citizen journalists to write longer pieces, such as news analysis.
YouTube is different from Twitter and blogs in that it's a site entirely dedicated to uploading and sharing videos. Any person with a video camera or a smartphone can film events and post the videos online for anyone to access. Citizen journalists are not restricted to text and picture reporting; they can also record information and report via videos uploaded on YouTube.
Curiously, Facebook isn't mentioned here, although it is the largest social network in the world with over one billion users. Unlike Twitter, Facebook is a closed social network. An account is required to see content within the social network, and people usually interact with their real-life social circles on the site. Unlike Twitter, blogs, and YouTube, Facebook is more of a platform for following the lives of friends and acquaintances than for following trending news topics, a tendency confirmed by the results of a 2013 survey of Facebook users conducted by the Pew Research Center.
The Strengths of Citizen Journalism
Before the Internet, most people did not immediately know about significant events unless they regularly listened to or watched the news. Often, they would have to wait until the news appeared in the newspaper the next morning. But today, because of citizen journalism, news stories can reach the world instantly. Eyewitnesses can collect and report information using social media, circulating their news among a vast online audience. The news is as immediate as ever in the age of citizen journalism.
Information collected by citizen journalists has also become valuable for traditional journalists. In areas experiencing intense conflict, like the Gaza Strip and Israel in November 2012, people tweeted about rocket impacts or explosions and gave traditional journalists information about the latest attacks. Citizen journalists can also report on lesser-known news items. Take, for example, the blogger Chan Myae Khine, who wrote a blog post about a crackdown on monks protesting plans for a Chinese-financed mine in Myanmar. Khine's post is specific and unaddressed by the mainstream news media. Citizen journalists like Khine can spread international news stories that most newspapers cannot (or do not) always cover.
Sometimes citizen journalists gather news on conflicts that traditional journalists cannot. In Syria, where a brutal civil war is playing out, brave citizen journalists are risking their lives to report on the conflict by pursuing any action, filming footage (later to be put on YouTube), and tweeting about developments.
Traditional journalists—who cannot gain safe access to Syria—may rely on reporting done by citizen journalists for their hard news and feature stories. As traditional journalists work with citizen journalists, a key question emerges: Can the public and traditional journalists always rely on the work done by citizen journalists?
The Caveats of Citizen Journalism
Citizen journalists are met with skepticism over two concerns: the objectivity and quality of their work. It's easy for citizen journalists to imbue their reporting with their own opinions—after all, they work through social media, which, unlike the newsroom, is informal. A plaque of journalistic principles does not hang in front of them every time they log on. Citizen journalists have more liberty to express their own opinions, and the integration of their beliefs into their reporting can compromise the truthfulness of their work.
Some citizen journalists admit to editing their text or footage to advance their views. Omar Telawi, a Syrian video journalist with no formal journalism training, admitted to the news service Channel 4 that he used special effects in his YouTube videos of the sieged city of Homs. He added extra smoke to the video clips, making Homs appear more desolate. In an interview with Channel 4, Telawi said he did not regret editing the videos. He wanted Syrian rebels to pay more attention to Homs and fight Syrian president Bashir al-Assad's forces there.
The quality of citizen journalists' work varies widely. They may not know the difference between hard news and feature stories, as most have never received formal journalistic training. Their news-related blog posts may not constitute actual news articles. Yet citizen journalists can produce high-quality information by documenting news events with their smartphones, cameras, and Twitter accounts. Citizen journalists generate information that traditional journalists can use in "traditional" news; their blog posts offer perspectives and insights that traditional journalists can reference in hard news or feature stories.
Citizen journalists and traditional journalists indeed work together as they aim to share news and inform the public. The New York Times often cites people's tweets in articles. Julian Assange, the citizen journalist and infamous mind behind WikiLeaks—the website that releases government reports to call for governmental transparency—worked with The New York Times to spread information that WikiLeaks had found in U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog even became a part of The New York Times, beginning in August 2010. There is a symbiotic relationship at play: citizen journalists effectively collect information and report it through the Internet, and this information is used by traditional journalists and news organizations. This relationship allows for professional news organizations to fact-check citizen journalist reports and ensure their accuracy.
Perhaps, in the future, citizen journalists will become more independent from newspapers and will gain recognition for their own news writing. The organization GlobalVoices, started by Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, unites citizen journalists and provides some journalistic training over the Internet. GlobalVoices can empower citizen journalists to produce news pieces equivalent to those found in traditional newsprint.
The nature of citizen journalism is in flux, and the role of the citizen in the journalism ecosystem is yet to be defined. Even so, their importance in the world of journalism is undeniable. As journalists move into the digital age, familiarity with citizen journalism and its strengths and limitations will only become more important.