Prosumption of News: Citizen Journalism

Nadine Sarabia, Integrated Social Sciences student contributed a summary report and background info on citizen journalism.

On 22 November 1963, then-president of the United States John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode a motorcade in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. The video of his assassination was taken by a parade-goer named Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera. This was one of the world’s first examples of citizen journalism.

The concept of citizen journalism has its origin in citizens collecting, reporting and disseminating news and information to others. Journalist and freedom of speech activist Courtney C. Radsch defines it as “an alternative and activist form of newsgathering and reporting that functions outside mainstream media institutions, often as a response to shortcomings in the professional journalistic field, that uses similar journalistic practices but is driven by different objectives and ideals and relies on alternative sources of legitimacy than traditional or mainstream journalism”. (Radsch, C. (2011). The revolution will be blogged: Cyberactivism in Egypt. Ph.D., American University). Indeed, citizen journalism has played key roles in citizen activism, such as during the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Moment, where locals took photographs and shared eyewitness accounts. These then leaked to the Western media and the world came to know about what was happening to the people involved in these events.

Society’s New Watchdog: The Citizen Journalist

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Citizen journalism is so widespread in this digital age: anyone with a smartphone can share a controversial photograph on Facebook or start tweeting eyewitness reports on Twitter on the spot. Not only is this process immediate – it has the power to reach thousands in mere seconds, thanks to social media’s sharing function. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat and features such as Facebook Live emphasize the “now-ness” of the content, because these platforms show the time of posting, i.e. viewers and subscribers know that they are getting the information in real time. This gives the impression of authenticity, because the video, photograph, tweet, etc. posted have no chances of being edited as it is posted. Citizen journalists have the unique ability to publish news as it happens – something traditional media lags behind.

In countries where freedom of speech is compromised, or where traditional media is controlled by the state, many see citizen journalists as the real watchdogs of society – a role that was traditionally associated with official news media. Since citizen journalists are usually independent members, some may find their voice to be more credible than biased traditional media sources in some countries.

The Citizen Journalist: Reporting Without Fear or Favor…?

Despite its advantages, citizen journalism also faces a lot of criticism, especially from professional journalists. Many find it to be too unregulated, since citizen journalists do not necessarily follow journalism ethics. Journalism ethics are a set of guidelines formed by official journalism associations that journalists adhere to, and it addresses ethical principles with regards to publishing content. These include accuracy and standards for factual reporting, harm limitation principles and slander and libel principles. Since citizen journalists are not bound by these ethics, they may not consider objectivity, accuracy or harm limitation in their accounts. This could further lead to agenda setting by citizen journalists, where they only report in an angle that may be biased, inaccurate or sensationalized. Since anyone who has a smartphone and internet connection has the ability to become a citizen journalist, readers might also experience an information overload, in which readers are bombarded with different messages that it might affect their objectivity.

Vulnerability of Citizen Journalists

Citizen journalists are also vulnerable. As they are usually independent entities, they are not protected by a journalistic organization (unlike professional journalists who are backed up by their companies). If their reporting leads them into trouble with the authorities, they are usually alone in such situations. As such, they are forced to find support from their readers who may or may not choose to help them, through forming petitions, crowd-funding, etc. This leads them to being too dependent on external sources, and they may find themselves being exploited by certain entities that plan to make use of their follower count and popularity to promote certain values.

Citizen journalism clearly has its pros and cons. However, one cannot deny the increasing impact it has on society’s news-reporting and news-gathering norms. It has certainly lent a voice to an otherwise unheard population, especially in areas where freedom of speech is lacking or where there is rampant bias in official media sources. With globalization and the advances of technology and media, prosumption of news can only evolve with time, affecting society’s norms and how we perceive news as consumer of news.