Citizen journalism: can journalism by anyone be trusted by everyone?

Week 4:

Russell (et al.) compares elite media and institutions with bloggers and ponders the following question: “Do bloggers, with their editorial independence, collaborative structure and merit-based popularity more effectively inform the public?” (Reader, page 136). Do you agree? Use examples to illustrate your point of view.

Thanks to the Internet, anyone and everyone is now a journalist. Stories are breaking in real time as people share what they see. In fact, the Internet is “dissolving the boundaries between professional journalists and amateurs” (Solove, 2007: 23) so thoroughly, that the mainstream media increasingly relies on its readers for content.

Debating whether citizen journalism more effectively informs the public has arguments for both sides. Russel et al. argue that bloggers have “editorial independence, collaborative structure[s] and merit-based popularity” (Russell et al., 2008: 67). They can operate much faster than the mass media (often in real time) and usually have first hand information. Furthermore, while the mass media has long been preferred for factual credibility and objectivity, the more cynical observer knows that, in the modern age, news is just another commodity. Stories are slanted and certain issues are covered specifically to maximise profits. In such an environment, citizen journalism does appear an enticing alternative.

Yet for all its potential, it would be premature to say that citizen journalism is more effective at informing the public than the mass media. At least not yet.

Firstly, the majority of citizen produced content is actually poached from the mass media itself. Bloggers simply use the “mainstream media as a springboard for critique and discussion” (Russel et al. 2008: 70). Furthermore, there are far too many voices to create an effective, coherent news service. While this “wider range of opinions” (Sonwalkar, 2009: 77) is often touted as a positive of alternative media, in practice it is impractical. Russel et al. suggest that “all voices can be heard, but not all voices attract equal amounts of attention” (2008: 67), however, I agree more with Trueman’s assessment that “where everyone has a right to speak….nobody in particular is listened to” (Quoted in Lovink, 2008: 27).

The two biggest issues, however, are obviously: credibility and objectivity.

While you should by no means take everything you read in the newspaper as gospel, you can usually trust that the facts are correct. Why? Because someone will be held accountable if they are not. A key difference of citizen journalism is that no-one is accountable. If I write something false on my blog, and you read it and believe it… Well, who cares? I won’t go to jail. I won’t get fired. I’m going to bed. In fact, efforts to improve editorial content quality have often “discouraged potential contributors” (Robinson et al., 2010: 170). Thus, even if the vast majority of bloggers strive to be factual and honest, there will always be those who won’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. How will you know who’s right?

Secondly, professional journalists are trained to put aside their prejudices and report in an objective manner. While it’s certainly not bulletproof, it is better than nothing. Yet, as Dheere writes, bloggers “often see themselves as taking a more active role in the news than simply reporting it. They are often instigators of change in the first place” (Dheere, 2008). In light of this, how can the public reasonably expect objectivity over an issue the journalist was involved in? It’s one thing to write a story, it’s another to be the story.

The shift from mainstream media, as the primary source of news, towards social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) is undoubtedly underway. But it’s not there just yet. The Age website might have to be my homepage a little while longer.

(Still doubtful? This video cleverly summarises Citizen vs Mainstream Journalism. Using Lego!)

Words: 556

References:

Dheere, J. (2008) ‘Arab bloggers meet to discuss free speech, reject ‘journalist’ label’, PBS MediaShift. http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2008/09/arab-bloggers-meet-to-discuss-free-speech-reject-journalist-label256.html, 12 September, [accessed 11 April]

Lovink, G. (2008) Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, London, UK: Routledge. pp 1-38

Robinson, S., DeShano, C., Nakho, K. and L. A. Friedland (2010) ‘Madison Commons 2.0: A platform for tomorrow’s civic and citizen journalism’ pp. 162-172 in Rosenberry, J. and  J. Burton St. (eds) Public journalism 2.0: the promise and reality of a citizen-engaged press. New York: Routledge.

Russell, A., Ito, M., Richmond, T., & Tuters, M. (2008). Culture: Media Convergence and Networked Participation. pp 43-76 in K. Varnelis (ed.) Networked Publics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Solove, Daniel. J. (2007) The future of reputation: gossip, rumor and privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 23

Sonwalkar, P. (2009) ‘Citizen journalism in India: the politics of recognition’ pp 75-84 in S. Allan and E. Thorsen (eds.) Citizen journalism: global perspectives. New York: Peter Lang Publishing