Citizen journalism takes heat for lack of credibility, poor original writing and biased reporting. DigitalJournal.com investigates its failings, its potential and how the future of journalism can blend citizen voices with traditional reporting.This article is the final installment in a three-part series discussing the future of journalism and credibility of both mainstream and citizen journalism. Check out Part 1 of the series titled Did the Internet kill journalism? and Part 2, titled "In mainstream media we trust?" You may also want to set a DigitalJournal.com News Alert for future coverage on citizen journalism
Citizen media is changing the face of journalism, but to what extent? Outlets like CNN, Fox and Canada's CTV have embraced user-generated news, and YouTube hopped onboard awhile ago. The Washington Times even devoted an entire section to articles by its citizen reporters.
The Times' executive editor John Solomon said, "We know there are many issues and communities we have not been able to fully cover within the confines of a newsroom budget, and we are excited to empower citizens within those communities to provide us news that will interest all our readers."
For all benefits of citizen media, its critics point out the downsides of this rising trend. It's been called untrustworthy, shoddy and inarticulate. So how can citizen media gain the trust of both reporters and an ever-skeptical news audience? And how can it complement the mainstream media?
Is citizen journalism trustworthy?
Photo by DigitalJournal.com
Jack Kapica is a well-respected Canadian journalist with almost 40 years experience. He has been a staff writer and editor for The Gazette in Montreal and the Canadian national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. Kapica is now an advisor to DigitalJournal.com
"I worry that many citizen journalists are basically amateurs who are simply mimicking what they see on TV or in the press, to varying degrees of success," says Jack Kapica, a former reporter for Canada's Globe & Mail and current writer and editorial advisor for DigitalJournal.com. "Much of the writing I’ve read, on most citizen journalism sites, shows little understanding of the process of gathering the news and writing it in a conventional form. Conventionality of presentation is important because it can give readers a recognizable framework to assess and understand what’s being written."
Style issues aside, Kapica says citizen journalists need to focus on doing more original reporting rather than working as a rewrite desk in a newsroom. "One of the critical things many citizen journalism writers do not understand is the necessity of interviewing people and quoting them. The value of original quotes cannot be overstated. Too frequently I see citizen journalists quoting the mainstream media stories and I can’t see how this differs from mainstream media."
Kapica believes citizen journalism, when done correctly, can be very powerful because of its speed and the ability of the fledgling industry to be anywhere at any time. That said, he also believes the world of citizen journalism needs to be encouraged to hold high standards of itself and practice sound journalistic principles.
Paul Knox, Chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, says trustworthy user-generated news has to be subject to the same quality-control mechanisms as mainstream journalism.
"Traditionally we put our trust into organizations who are set up to perform that trust, whether they're mainstream or alternative sources. It’s more efficient to have that happening by a professional, by people who have had some knowledge on how to do it. We don’t all wire our own houses, so we shouldn't all write our own news."
Knox said many mainstream journalists may be skeptical of citizen journalism, but emphasized that's what they are taught to do. "As reporters, we’re trained to be skeptical, not to just take someone’s word for it. We’ve also been trained to be on the lookout for people who are trying to convince of things that aren’t necessarily true. All of that is part of a reporter and editor’s training. Like it or not, those things happen in our society."
Knox is critical of surveys that indicate how much people trust the mainstream press. "Someone who reads the Globe and Mail and says it’s full of shit -- that person doesn’t immediately stop their lives and become a reporter," says Knox. "So why would they trust a citizen journalist anymore? In the U.S. there have been some very high-profile cases where the mainstream media fell short of the standards they themselves set, but I don’t think the broad brush criticism of the media has been fair."
Photo by oso
A man records an interview on a hand-held video camera.
In fact, citizen reports have been discovered to be phony. Remember the CNN iReport story last year about Apple's then-CEO, Steve Jobs, suffering a heart attack? It was reported to be breaking news but was later discovered to be false.
While studies show many people are increasingly skeptical of the mainstream press, some believe citizen journalists are guilty of the same thing.
"I see [citizen journalists] freely mixing opinion with factual reporting in obvious ignorance of how this is a conflict of ambition," Kapica says. "In one story I read a while ago, a fairly well-structured news story suddenly included the following sentence opener: 'Now come on, folks...' If the mainstream media tried to pull a stunt like that, it would be flayed for bias. For some lucky reason citizen journalism is being held to a different standard."
Kapica believes it's only a matter of time until citizen journalism starts to field attacks for biased reporting. "If citizen journalism becomes mainstream, then it too will be criticized for not being trustworthy," he notes. "At the moment it’s getting a free ride. It’s axiomatic in journalism that the more influential you are, the more insults and the bigger lawsuits you attract. Since citizen journalism sites do not yet have a perceptible clout, they are spared criticism, leaving the impression they’re 'better' if only because they’re not attracting vitriol."
When it comes to trust of user-generated media, Kapica believes editing and supervision is necessary. "I know much of what I have written would have killed me had not a sharp-eyed editor spotted me saying something I didn’t mean."
The future of media?
The future of journalism, and its business model, remains uncertain. Most people interviewed by DigitalJournal.com agree it will morph into some sort of hybrid journalism, blending the immediacy of social news sites like Twitter and Facebook with the accuracy and dependability of traditional journalism.
Kapica says newspapers that have created citizen journalism websites separate from their newspapers are on the right track, "as long as they nurture their writers and exercise oversight." He adds, "But they have to do it right; you can’t create a newsroom from scratch and expect readers to flock to it overnight. You need reputation, and building a reputation takes a lot of time, something the Twitttering speed-freaks of online journalism have too little of."
Photo courtesy Stephen Dohnberg
Stephen Dohnberg is a journalist who works with both mainstream and citizen media outlets.
Stephen Dohnberg, who works as both a "professional" and citizen journalist, says citizen journalists need to do a better job of practicing sound journalism. Self-training isn't easy, though. "Unless one has a big trust fund or a good amount of venture capital, it is hard for the average citizen journalist to know there are ethics and a methodology. It is incumbent on citizen journalists to distinguish themselves from bloggers and that means learning some of the basics. At the end of the day, the goal for honest reporters and journalists is the same: Presenting facts and information, not entertainment."
That said, he also admits the term "citizen journalism" is an Achilles' Heel to those who practice it; "It does a disservice to the people doing the really hard work and following the example of the best of reporting," he said. "At the same time, it lumps [in] veiled advocacy-based writing and self-interest blogs with agendas."
Phtoo courtesy Abby Goodrum
Abby Goodrum is Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.
Dohnberg suggests public relations personnel should provide more access for citizen reporters. "In essence, they are reporters if they are doing the hard work involved," he says. "So why undermine oneself? And after all, is a journalist not a citizen? It almost intimates this hierarchy like the way [police] have taken to referring to fellow citizens as 'civilians.' Ridiculous."
Abby Goodrom, Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair at Ryerson University, believes citizen journalism is capable of being professional and can add value to a mainstream media report, but the world is just at a transitional point where it's figuring out what its future holds.
"The whole discourse gets positioned as two opposites fighting against the middle," she says. "In fact, i think there is a much broader spectrum here, but if we don’t position it as us against them it doesn’t make the news. I think we’re actually seeing much more cooperation and collaboration."
Goodrom says newspapers and broadcasters wouldn’t allow people to contribute if they didn’t see the value in doing so. However, she's skeptical about how much traction citizen journalism can get in the industry because of funding.
"This notion that citizen journalism will replace the media is impossible because it can’t afford to," she tells DigitalJournal.com in a phone interview. "At some point, if you had enough citizen journalists banded together, that becomes like a mainstream media."
This article is the final installment in a three-part series discussing the future of journalism and credibility of both mainstream and citizen journalism. Check out Part 1 of the series titled Did the Internet kill journalism? and Part 2, titled "In mainstream media we trust?" You may also want to set a DigitalJournal.com News Alert for future coverage on citizen journalism