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Citizen journalists test limits of trustworthiness and credibility

Anybody can proclaim to be a journalist. All they need is a platform and an audience. And with the addition of social media and all the tools it offers, professionally-trained journalists find themselves up against writers with less experience and training. But who really benefits from citizen journalism? Journalist Tony Rogers describes them as “amateur journalists” who produce news in many forms and are usually digital in a digital format. Rogers, who has taught journalism for 25 years, wrote in “Understanding Citizen Journalism” that “citizen journalists are often the first on-scene for breaking news, getting these stories out more quickly than traditional media reporters.” When amateurs are competing with professionals, it creates a dilemma for readers and viewers who are left trying to decide if the information they are presented with is trustworthy and credible. And on top of that, the methods by which citizen journalists obtain and present information can sometimes be questionable. And that’s where I feel it gets tricky.

There are several cases that come to mind. There’s one in particular that personally affected me. A family member that I treat as my brother was sadly shot one day as he held his son. A citizen journalist, who operates a website known to be a place that publishes news before traditional media organizations, posted the story. But not only did he post the few details that he had, but he also took pictures and posted them as well. At the time, I lived six hours away from my family and wasn’t able to get home in order to find out what was going on. I didn’t feel comfortable calling them every ten minutes for an update. Afterall, my brother was fighting for his life. But it was incredibly frustrating for the family to learn that before my brother could get to the hospital, the citizen journalist had taken pictures and posted them online. I was devastated just to see the scene of the crime. I felt like our family’s privacy was being invaded by someone who had no ethical standards or journalist integrity. But he wasn’t trained to wait until the family was informed of certain details. It was sensational and he got pageviews because of it. That helped to get advertisers whose ads lined the top, bottom, left and right columns on his website. 

Facebook Live has created opportunities for citizen journalists to report from places professional reporters are unable to immediately get to. But because they are not professionally trained, they may “report” information that might not be factual or not ready for release. For example, I was intrigued by a Facebook Live video where a young man was at the scene of a shooting. I remember vividly him saying, “Check on your people. Check on your people. Somebody’s been shot.” I was especially interested in what he was saying because people on my Facebook friend’s list were watching and commenting. This young man that was “reporting” from the scene of the shooting also mentioned the last name of a family in town, as if one of their relatives had been shot. While he was “reporting” I saw other posts that emphatically stated that it was NOT their family. Once the ordeal was over, traditional news media reported that no one had been shot. 

Journalists are often referred to as “gatekeepers”.  Amani Channel, a mass communications graduate student, describes in her thesis entitled “Gatekeeping and Citizen Journalism: A Qualitative Examination of Participatory Newsgathering”, that gatekeeping is a process of how information is selected, vetted, gathered, and shared by reporters and news organizations. Channel stated that the news industry is experiencing a “great” change right now. She went on to list what Joyce Nip, Senior Lecturer of The University of Sydney, describes as the “Second Phase of  Public Journalism”. According to Nip:

Public journalism attempts to engage citizens in both the news making and in the news consumption process. Journalists use town hall meetings, and polls to understand community concerns, and provide feedback to the citizenry in an attempt to help create discussions to reach solutions. The professional journalists maintain their traditional role as gatekeeper, in framing and presentation.

There is evidence of this everyday through blogs and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. And I have come to realize that it has its place in communities. 

But there should be some oversight when it comes to citizen journalism. When they are connected to a reputable news organization, it makes them more credible. When I served as the Digital Media Manager of the Savannah Morning News, there were two things that always kept me on my toes: our blogging platform and our photo sharing website. We allowed our users to set up their own blog through our website. It sounds like a good idea until you find yourself monitoring their posts throughout the day and night for inappropriate comments or misinformation. My team and I were constantly moderating blogs and comments. There was never a shortage of excitement. Many times we were forced to remove or hide certain comments and warn the writer. This took away valuable time from what we loved to do: create digital content. 

But then there was a photo-sharing website we operated called Spotted. We allowed users to upload entire photo galleries for other users to view. And it was very popular. We even recruited volunteers (citizen journalists if you will) to cover events for us. They attended events on our behalf and took lots of pictures. They were proud to state their affiliation with the Savannah Morning News because it gave them credibility. We were delighted to have the help because the digital team couldn’t be in all places at all times. But we also had the authority to reject certain photos if they did not fit our standards. 

A citizen journalist’s connection to a news organization is needed to maintain the integrity of the pieces of journalism produced. It helps to filter out the misinformation before it makes it to readers. It is our job as journalists to maintain integrity while providing accurate, unbiased information. Professional journalists and citizen journalists can work together to get more issues covered in order to keep people well-informed.


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