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article imageOp-Ed: What is the Role and Value of Citizen Journalism?

By Carol Forsloff     Oct 2, 2009 in Lifestyle
Many citizen journalists write as well or better than the mainstream press. Furthermore there are mainstream journalists who are hacks and little else. I believe there are ways of marrying both types of media to serve the community well.
Last week Digital Journal, a citizen media outlet, was one of the chief organizers at an event in Toronto where the issues of citizen journalism were discussed. The event was called the "Future of Media" where a panel of individuals from both traditional and citizen media discussed the future of journalism and the pros and cons of the various types of outlets communicating news and features to the citizenry. Citizen journalism has become so well recognized that today the Huffington Post has a blog devoted to publishing standards for its citizen journalists.
My idea of citizen journalism is news that is covered "on the spot" by the citizen who is there, who knows the community better than the guy who flies from somewhere to cover it. It is news where a journalist analyzes a story, then other sources that involve that same story or issues presented similarly and examines those impacts, which means original thought.
Here’s an example of a citizen journalist activity. Let's say I read an article that tells me people only read what they believe. If I just recite those facts and nothing more I have simply rewritten someone else's work, in which case the entire article needs to be sourced because without the reference it becomes plagiarism. If instead I do an interview and find out that the bulk of the people in my town like to read everything they can about an issue, including opinions that differ, and that most of them seem to know very well both sides of that same issue (after being asked questions in a questionnaire perhaps) I have opened up the story that raises questions about the original findings. Or my article might simply suggest that in my corner of the world people do things differently, especially if my corner is the five miles surrounding Yale.
Citizen journalism can examine news presented by the mainstream press and chronicle how it impacts the local community. For example if the automobile industry is given a bailout, I might check with a local dealership to find out if that dealership thinks it a good idea and how it might affect his or her business now and in the future.
In my opinion citizen journalism must involve some level of creative search. It means considering all sides of a news report by reading from very different sources, then shooting the ball down the middle with the right facts and the issues about those facts as well.
There are so many crossovers in journalism that it’s hard to distinguish who might be professionally trained and who has not been. In some cases the difference is obvious; in others it is not. Citizen journalism allows a reentry to journalism of those who had to go on to something else because of discrimination that took place years ago or other issues that prevented the flowering of a special talent. It provides the community with perspective from one of their own folk. It gives people who are shut-ins, those with disabilities and seniors a place to continue, or begin, a career because it has built-in special supports. Finally it allows citizens an opportunity to expand their knowledge on a vast number of subjects because one often learns more during the process of writing about something than simply reading it.
The mainstream journalist takes classes in ethics, which tells him or her how to treat sensitive subjects referencing minorities. Ethics teaches one how to look at issues of defamation, when and what to say about certain subjects and when to back off and make careful choices. Ethics is the one area where citizen journalism can cross the line, resulting in either the site or the individual writer having problems later on.
I believe there is a role for citizen journalists, but I also believe there should be some required orientation by way of blogs or online classes which one passes or fails through some evaluation process that isn't complicated. These classes might only be an hour and perhaps half a dozen. This would allow some of the information about ethics, how to get information beyond the original source material, and the different approaches to news that a journalist takes. It would raise the standards of any citizen journalism site instantly, giving it additional credibility with the public and other journalists. It would also sort the wheat from the chaff, because those unwilling to do the basics aren't the kind who would last long or refuse to do the right thing later on. Anyone who has either taught journalism, practiced it in a traditional setting for a period of time or had formal classes might be involved as team leaders or be excused.
In traditional media there are those who have come from other types of training other than writing and formal journalism training, but for the most part employers ask about journalism education or something related like a major in English. It is relevant. Journalism isn't something an individual learns the first week. It is a skill finely honed. Can one learn by doing? I believe so and have seen folks do exactly that and do exceptionally well. But if they stop with how they functioned at the beginning and don't begin to move out of the box, then they are part of the denigration of the media and of their own possible talents. We all suffer as a society when our doctors, lawyers, teachers and journalists have no training or guidelines whatsoever.
Finally there is that thing called talent that makes any creative person continue or move aside. If I decided to play the violin and had no ear for music, I would eventually be found out. The problem with citizen journalism that is developed through the voting method and pageviews alone is that a poor violinist in the same situation, just like a citizen journalist, begins to believe he or she is a virtuoso when instead it’s only a contest been won. I have seen YouTube videos that had cats singing Happy Birthday get thousands of hits while serious information carefully scripted and performed might get little. Traditional media over the decades tries to have a balance of both because people need a break from the tough stuff after all. But how one measures a citizen journalist or any journalist for that matter is an ongoing issue in the industry.
Two years ago in Prague the whole issue of old vs. new media was examined, organized by Traditions Online. The seminar’s purpose was to examine the various ways citizen and traditional media might mesh. It raised questions about what some of the issues might be. Africa’s special problems can be handled well by citizen journalists, according to opinions from that continent, filling a need in the local community where people often don’t get news from the digital world. Citizen journalists can help that according to the website Citizen Journalism in Africa.
As more and more journalists are down-sized from the big boys, citizen media will grow because that is the avenue opening up for writers. Professional journalists will have a choice to either fight the inevitable or join the struggle to make citizen journalism strong.
I have chosen the latter, am proud of many colleagues in both citizen and traditional media and believe that in time we will all succeed, if we guide each other, continue to learn and grow and strive to do our best.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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