The 21st Century has brought about radical changes in the way people interact with traditional news outlets and receive information. Citizen journalism has been at the center of these changes, with ordinary people reporting and disseminating information instead of “trained” journalists.
So why is citizen journalism controversial? What are its benefits and drawbacks? We examine its history, nature, and potential consequences.
History of Citizen Journalism
The history of citizen journalism is as long as the history of society – people have always relied on sources who “know things” to inform them of local events. When literacy was uncommon among the population, the town gossip was often the closest thing people had to a news source.
The town crier in medieval societies represented a slightly more official variant. However, it wasn’t until literacy rates began to increase in the 19th Century that journalism began to represent the centralized, formal news source we know it as today.
So what distinguishes citizen journalism from its more formal cousin? Conventional journalism tends to rely on a few central tenets:
- Favorable access to primary sources
- Providing references for veracity
- High-quality editing and proofreading
- The reputation of a large-scale publisher (which can be compromised if it’s found wanting)
The average citizen may lack several of these, which is partly why it’s considered less reliable than traditional media. However, the “favorable access” granted to conventional outlets and the interests of wealthy media owners has raised questions about how trustworthy mainstream sources are and whether only a few parties should control access to information.
Who Controls Information?
Before the advent of social media, most people relied on a few sources, or even just one, to receive their information. These sources might be owned or operated by:
- Wealthy media moguls
- Independent trusts
- Large media organizations
According to opponents of this structure, media organizations owned or controlled by a Government might simply be a mouthpiece or could be pressured by the Government to make certain claims to the public. Media moguls tend to mandate that their own interests are represented and not attacked by their publications. Even independent trusts have stakeholders with political interests.
Citizen journalism aims to take control of information away from central authorities or influential figures. But individuals have political interests as well, so what would the advantage of citizen journalism be?
The Impact of Social Media on Citizen Journalism
Social media has changed the landscape of how news is disseminated and consumed. The brevity of platforms like Twitter and the fact that a “headline” can be redistributed thousands of times, regardless of its source, means that news can travel fast without paid distribution.
News organizations have found that they need to compete in these spaces. However, this has equally allowed individuals to challenge information distributed by mainstream organizations in a way that was previously impossible – and provide context from sources that even large media networks may not have access to. Think of the recent reporting on US inflation; the Fed and major news platforms first denied there was any major inflation happening, then stated it was transitory, until they both finally had to admit inflation was real and here to stay after citizen journalists kept pushing for the truth.
Citizen Journalism and Sources
Trustworthy primary sources are the foundation on which all journalism rests. Before social media, individuals would have to go to a news outlet with information and have it presented through that outlet’s prism, to prove a point that suited the outlet’s narrative.
Citizen journalism allows anyone to present themselves as a primary source. This can disrupt conventional narratives and empower individuals to tell their own stories. However, it also allows people to spread misinformation, as anyone can publish a newsworthy message and have it distributed without (initially) needing to offer proof or citations. As a result, citizen journalism is both empowering for individuals and difficult to verify.
Trusting information is difficult, whether it comes from individuals or media networks. While citizen journalism might be empowering for individuals, it is difficult to verify. The importance of verifying primary sources has never been greater, no matter where a person gets their news. Discovering how to push all citizens to value primary sources and spot fake news is the next challenge.