Citizen Journalism vs. Professional Journalism

A report by Amanda Harper

“Can I ask you a quick question….?” Source: Amanda Harper

Citizen journalism; the process of members within the public playing an independent role in collecting, reporting and distributing, current and breaking news events, has recently become very popular(i). New media technology such as social networking eg: Twitter, Facebook and Blogger, have given everyday citizens the ability to transmit information globally; a power which was once only reserved for large media corporations (ii).
In addition, the increasing presence, speed and accessibility of advanced cellular phones and other media sharing devices has allowed citizen journalists to report on breaking news not only to a larger, global, audience, but also more quickly than traditional news reporters. Many believe this form of news coverage is fundamental to Journalism today; citizens’ being relatable, unrestricted and available to capture images and footage of worldwide news as it breaks.

Citizen Journalist in action. Source: Adriana Mageros

Despite this, some argue that citizen journalists threaten to destroy the circulation of factual news, spreading incorrect, misleading information and opinion rather than truth. This is due to a suggested lack of training, ethics and accountability. However, citizen journalists have played a crucial role in news media over the last decade, stepping in for professional journalists in their absence to capture and distribute news material during major global events.
Is citizen journalism a reliable source of news? Will citizen journalism replace professional journalism? Do these two forms of journalism have the potential to co-exist? If so, is it necessary and can a balance be found?
One of the primary aims of journalism is to be objective and present an unbiased, factual account of news events. A strict code of ethics is adhered to by all professional journalists when doing so to maintain and preserve public trust, confidence and reliability (iii). To ensure this the process of ‘gate keeping’ is upheld within mainstream media (iv). This relies on all experienced and trained journalists and editors to filter any nonfactual information from news reports before publication or broadcasting (v). Citizen journalists are untrained in such journalistic methods and are therefore at risk of using unreliable sources and publishing incorrect or in-factual news.

Citizen Journalist preparing to speak to members of the public for an upcoming, home-made documentry. Source: Amanda Harper

The rumor story of ‘Steve Jobs Heart Problem’ acts as a reminder of the dangers of publishing stories from anonymous, untrained sources (vi). On October 3rd 2008, CNN posted on their citizen journalism site, iReport, ‘Steve Jobs rushed to ER following a severe heart attack’ (vii). The news turned out to be false; however, the damage was already done (viii). Apples share price had dropped from $105.27 to $95.41 between 9:40am and 9:52am – a 9 per cent decrease within minutes (ix). San Francisco Chronicle journalist, Reyhan Harmanci explained that the incident, “sparked debate about the accuracy of reports from these web sites…..showing how it takes only a few minutes for a scurrilous rumor, placed on a site without sufficient editorial checks, to inflict damage.” (x)
In addition, a report conducted by Social Media Today found that almost half (49.1%) of online users have been tricked by false ‘breaking news’ (xi). This leads many to believe that citizen journalism should not be used as a primary news source, lacking credibility and reliability. Because of this, citizen journalism must be approached with a certain emphasis of skepticism and caution.
Citizen journalism, in nature, is also more reflective of personal opinion and or belief. This is dangerous. For a news article to be considered fair it must be exempt of bias, emotion and personal beliefs. This is so the reader can formulate their own opinion free of influence. This common criticism leads many to adopt an uncertainty towards citizen bloggers true objectives and or motives. Who are they really writing for and why? Citizen journalists claim that their central goal is to “publish information and stories for the sake of bringing about true change,” (xii) however, this is believed to be incredibly idealistic. Instead, it is thought that most citizen journalistic in fact write in an attempt to be heard and felt relevant. A study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism comparing citizen and professional journalism content on websites found extreme varieties between the two in areas including; content, social interaction, sources and content sharing. This reminds us how truly separate each entity are, and how far citizen journalism still has to come.
In addition, some citizen news bloggers choose to remain completely anonymous. This protects the individual’s identity and allows them to publish contentious or controversial material without fear of association and or consequence. Ultimately, staying anonymous provides the writer freedom; a luxury unavailable to a professional journalist. This is sometimes seen as an overwhelming benefit of citizen journalism, many believing through this principle, the truth with emerge. However it is at risk of doing to complete opposite. Citizen journalists who choose to remain anonymous are unable to be held accountable for the information they publish. This means that all allegations or controversial material which is published is at risk of being false. The source of the information is ultimately unknown and therefore unreliable. How can the public determine if it is true? This ability to lie and spread in-factual information, at such a vast rate, is incredibly dangerous.

Who are you really trusting? Source: Amanda Harper

Despite this, citizen journalists in the past have been responsible for breaking and or reporting on exclusive world-wide news before any large news organization. This is due to the absence or delay of professional reporters at news events which are unplanned or unexpected, as professional journalists cannot possibly be everywhere at all times.
People with mobile phones and a view of the Hudson River were the first to break the news of US flight #1549 crash in New York, 2009 (xiii).
Citizens using social media such as Twitter and Flickr were able break the news to the world and post live updates about the accident within minutes. Florida resident Janis Krums said in a Twitter post “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy” (xiv). Included was an image he took of passengers standing on the wings of the plane whilst they waited to be rescued by emergency services (xv).
In just over an hour, hundreds of messages about the crash had been generated on Twitter alone, and again, used by large new organisations to aid in the reporting of the story (xvi).
During the 9/11 terrorist attacks which saw two airplanes flown into the World Trade Center in New York, many eyewitness accounts and viral images of the event came from citizen journalists (xvii). Pictures and video footage of people jumping from the burning buildings recorded by citizens were later used by larger news corporations to assist in reporting on the story.
Prior to 9/11, recording or capturing media of a news related event was considered a specialist skill reserved only for professionals (xviii).
Stuart Allen, a professor at Cardiff University of Journalism, Media and Cultural studies described this shift in Journalism after 9/11 as, “[an] invitation to “be the media,” and thus to challenge traditional definitions of what counted as “news” ….as well as who qualified as a “journalist (xix).”
These examples illustrate how useful citizen journalists are to all news organisations. They are, in essence; powerful, spontaneous and omnipresent.

Citizen Journalist picking up the scent. Source: Amanda Harper

Citizen journalism is also often viewed as ‘by the people, for the people.’ This is because many find citizen journalists ‘relatable and honest.’ Popularity within this opinion has spread as citizen journalist’s gain more public attention, trust and confidence.
This poses a very controversial question; with the popularity of citizen journalism growing, will it replace professional journalism and large media corporations?
Ultimately, news is as important as the air we breathe and must remain a responsibility left primarily to trained, accountable experts and professional journalists (xx). The circulation of factual news events is crucial.While citizen journalism can compete on timeliness through the laws of chance(being present when news breaks) it cannot replace the objectivity, credibility and reliability a professional journalist would bring (xxi). It is suggested however that the two can co-exist, improving the quality and coverage of information the public receives. (xxii)

Outside the ABC (Australian Broadcast Corporation) Source: Amanda Harper

BBC journalist Richard Sambrook agrees with this explaining after the London underground bombings they were swamped with thousands of photographs and amateur videos “…our main evening TV newscast began with a package edited entirely from video sent in by viewers….” (xxiii). He continued saying,“Our reporting on this story was a genuine collaboration… and the result was transformational in its impact: We know now that when major events occur, the public can offer us as much new information as we are able to broadcast to them….from now on, news coverage is a partnership.” (xxiv)
Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, citizen journalists are witnessing and breaking world-wide news as it happens, providing the public with raw, uncut footage that news organisations always cant. The are an undeniable essential element to news today; posting live updates, images and videos of news events as it unfolds. Citizen journalists have greatly impacted journalism today, changing the way the world accepts and views news. However they must be approached with a sense of caution. Ensure the validity of their sources. Be defensive.
What do you think? Can citizen journalism replace professional journalism? Should it?


Video By: Amanda Harper


For more information:
1) ‘The Open News Room’
2) Center for Journalism Ethics
Word count: 1,516

Reference List:
(iii) Accessed on 30th April
(xiv) Accessed on 30th April 2014
(xix) Accessed on 13th May 2014




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