Would All Citizen Journalists Please Stand Up?

Apparently online journalism is the future. As soon as I heard this, I broke into a cold sweat, the technologically disabled wench that I am. I don’t like computers and they don’t like me. All I have to do is look at one and some kind of Y2k-esque malfunction generally ensues. Nevertheless, I have learned to tolerate them, safe in the knowledge that my handwriting isn’t what it used to be.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete IT virgin. Like a lot of people, I have several email addresses, am a member of several social networking sites and surf the World Wide Web for more hours than I would care to admit. I even had a blog once, and it was here that I first came into contact with ‘citizen journalism’.


I didn’t realise what a big business blogging was until my previous editor enlisted me to (begrudgingly) write one. So, being the over-eager, unqualified journalist I was, I started to overly research them.


As I scoured pages and pages of both famous and unknown blogs I finally got the point. Online writers are the voice of everyone and the voice of no-one. They represent themselves and their opinions but are broadcasting to a potential audience of billions. Blogs almost provide a release of sorts for people, budding journalists and writers. At a time when the world has forgotten how to write long-hand and the death knell of snail mail rapidly approaches, the online forum is another extension of what it means to take pleasure in writing – writing for writing’s sake – reviews, recipes, diaries and opinions on news. This is also where the hacks of the future will undoubtedly sharpen and cut their teeth.


As I went to work on my own blog, over which I was given free reign, I was sceptical as to whether or not anyone would actually read my rant. When I posted it, I was surprised to see that, not only were people reading it, but they were scrutinising and deliberating on every word, every fact, every spelling, every punctuation and even taking great delight in pointing out my shortcomings and inaccuracies (with a few personal comments thrown in for good measure!)


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When our JOMEC online journalism lecturer Glyn Mottershead mentioned ‘citizen journalism’ in his lecture, I realised that not only have millions of people around the world switched to online journalism but they have also started to comment and challenge the sacred words’ of a journalist. If journalists are said to write the first draft of history, then it seems the public is the de facto editor who comes behind us with a big fat, red pen analysing and checking everything we do, essentially keeping tabs on the free press and consequently keeping us on our toes. But is it all worth it?


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Writing about your recent backpacking adventure, posting your holiday snaps or recommending a new dish you’ve tried out is one thing. Now citizen journalism has gone to new levels. Not only are they challenging the words of the qualified, they are positioning themselves as writers of news.


What started off with groundbreaking photographs of natural disasters or acts of terrorism has now escalated to new heights. The general public is taking the news into their own hands and although I can see how useful it can be, alarm bells are also ringing in my head. Where are the checks and balances? Who is there to challenge what they have written? Where is the fact verification or journalistic integrity?


Whereas qualified journalists have spent a lot of time, money and hard graft getting to that newsroom, Joe Bloggs off the street comes along and can publish anything he wants. Am I the only one who feels cheated by this?


Even if no-one reads it, that potential still exists. A professional, contracted reporter working for a local newspaper has no such remit. But who is better off? The writer without constraints or the person getting paid for his or her troubles?


A recent example of how dangerous citizen journalism has the potential to be is from CNN’s user generated news site iReport.com. Their slogan “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.” says it all. Any member of the public is allowed to publish a story, provided they supply an email address.


Last week, one lone, fraudulent internet story affected the market value of one of the most powerful and largely recognised companies in the world. The story of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s supposed heart attack seen the company’s shares fall by nine percent in 12 minutes within an hour after the story was published.


Now what does that say to you about the impact of citizen journalism? Not everyone deliberately prints untruths but the point is they can, all at the click of a mouse.

A.J Liebling once famously said, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” Nowadays everyone can bring the news to the masses, all they need is access to a computer. How scary is that?


Citizen journalists are everywhere. They live in your town, they lurk on your street, they may even live in your house. In fact, as the Lotto is fond of saying, “It could (even) be you.”

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