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Citizen news gains momentum

Media: The evolution of journalism goes beyond the trained professionals

Posted: September 9, 2010 7:01 p.m.
Updated: September 10, 2010 4:55 a.m.

As citizens witnessed commercial airliners fly into the twin towers at the World Trade Center in 2001, the use of citizen journalists exploded.

Scores of witness accounts and citizens’ digital photos assisted news organizations in capturing the horrific events in real time.

Citizen journalism is a term that denotes citizens without professional journalism training participating in the reporting process.

The idea that citizens can practice journalism is evidenced in the scores of media options available today.

Citizen journalism began growing in the late 1980s with the popularity of camcorders, but it really took flight with citizens feeding major news stories around the world during the events of the Tiananmen Square protests in China.

Events that encouraged citizen journalism included the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the Northridge earthquake, tsunami and flooding in Southeast Asia, devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.

“One of the main concepts behind citizen journalism is that mainstream-media reporters and producers are not the exclusive center of knowledge on a subject — the audience knows more collectively than the reporter alone,” said Mark Glaser, a freelance journalist who frequently writes on new media issues.

Journalism efforts in the latter half of the past century were more often devoted to in-depth exposes or inclusive of special topic assessments that were time-consuming and periodic.

In this environment, professional journalists often drive public discussion or debate, and this work truly represents some of journalism’s proudest accomplishments.

The limitation, however, was in not always publishing information readers wanted to learn more about.

Newspaper readers often hear from community, business and city leaders, which is an effective means of communicating with the public.

However, often the same voices are heard from, as successful leaders naturally step up in public forums.

Community newspapers usually welcome the contributions from those who help shape the future of a city. But
readers do not always hear from the community at large.

In the citizen journalists’ participatory format, where the media and citizens work together, a publication is no longer solely telling its readers what’s important to them, but inviting readers to contribute to the local newsgathering process.

Former newspaper editor Frederic Filloux criticizes this form of reporting by deeming the term “citizen journalist” a code word for “free content.” He argues that one would not trust a citizen dentist to fill one’s cavities, for instance.

Filloux is not alone in his objections, though, reasons for criticism vary including lack of professional training or accuracy in reporting. Or perhaps, journalists are justifiably afraid of the giving additional cause to further erode the dramatically shrinking number of jobs available for positions in which they studied and trained extensively.

Others believe that in the face of shrinking resources, need to balance coverage and provide hyper-local focus, this form of citizen reporting aids in making a wider range of information available to the public.

“At the end of the day, a partnership between newspapers and citizen journalism organizations will be beneficial not only for both, but also for Americans who will be better informed. That’s the point. It also is the mission,” said Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism nonprofit.

Major television news outlets, with the burden of reporting news from around the world, 24 hours per day, have invited from citizens to contribute to the reporting process. In some cases, such as FOX News, CNN and MSNBC, the news organizations even post assignments on their respective websites. Local television stations also encourage the practice of residents sending in photos and news alerts.

Newspapers, with a much longer history and sense of responsibility to carefully report the facts, have been more reluctant to adopt an open forum, aside from accepting photos or new tips.

Paradoxically, a prestigious George Polk Award was recently granted to an anonymous person who posted the image of the violent death of an Iranian woman during protests last year. The foundation said it wanted to acknowledge the role of ordinary citizens in disseminating images and news.

While the debate continues, it is clear that newspapers need to continue exploring how to best serve the public.

Without good journalists, the working class residents in the city of Bell would be still be paying local officials exorbitant pay rates and saddling multiple local cities with budget-busting high pension contributions.

Whatever the solution, any joint explorations between the news media and local citizenry must result in reliable, accurate information delivered to the audience so that it offers a true value to readers. When news sharing models work well, there is an opportunity for democracy in action.


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