Recent technological developments, particularly with regard to internet technology, have dramatically increased access to information and facilitated the proliferation of information sources. The need to instantly access this information and to allow the spread of digital information on the internet has eroded the capacity of professional journalists to create and disseminate news. A significant reason for this is that a new class of journalists – aptly referred to as citizen journalists – have exploited the new medium and the new information age.
Citizen journalists are not professional journalists – they are members of the community who contribute to news production through various types of media, and participate at different levels of the news production process. They may gather, process or disseminate news of all kinds, particularly on the internet using web logs or “blogs.” Their contribution is, however, immediately controversial. In the industry they may be considered a valuable resource for more accessible news, for example the popular CNN iReport function, which relies on news and information from citizen journalists. Others consider their contribution a threat to journalistic standards, and to the industry at large.
I consider that if the growth of citizen journalism remains unchecked, the news industries and consumers accessing the news stand to lose on various fronts. A consequence may be that declining standards of news production will reduce the value and credibility of news made available to the public.
Impact of New Media
New Media is defined as the emergence of digital information and communication technologies (Wikipedia)
Currently there are over a billion internet users worldwide, with two-thirds of them believing that the internet is now a valuable news source. All major news organisations in broadcast and print media have websites. An online presence is essential for maintaining revenues in the face of competition. Revenues of online newspaper companies have consistently increased over the years. In the Unites States, for instance, eight percent of the New York Post’s revenues come from the internet, while the Washington Post collects 14 percent of its revenues online (Sidlow & Henschen, 2008: 231). These figures are another indication of the decline of traditional print media and the potential loss of jobs in journalism.
The integration and structural reforms that the new media have sparked have been opposed by many professional journalists, particularly because of job losses that have resulted from the new paradigm in journalism. Recently, 1800 redundancies within the BBC in the United Kingdom were announced – the end result being a 10 percent cut in commissioning, which would save the organisation £500 million over time (Thompson, 2007). The cuts were expected to be in news and current affairs and were needed to invest in interactive online technology. Furthermore, the cuts were aimed at building compelling multimedia and multi-platform products and services (MediaGuardian, 2007).
There are further examples of losses to traditional print and broadcast journalism in the United Kingdom related to new media. In February 2005, the Daily Telegraph announced that 20 percent of jobs would be cut to allow £150 million of investment in technology for the online era. The company’s journalists were dismayed at this and many resigned and leaked rumors about poor working conditions in the company’s offices (McNair, 2009: 148). In Scotland the reaction was more substantial. When Newsquest, the second largest publisher of regional and local newspapers in the United Kingdom implemented cost-cutting and restructuring plans in 2007, a strike broke out because journalists alleged that their ability to produce news had been undermined (McNair, 2009: 148). All these examples illustrate the inherent likelihood of instability in the news industry if changes are not be implemented cautiously and responsibly.
The demand for online news is changing the role of journalists and the tasks they perform. Journalists worldwide are becoming more versatile, many of them training themselves to use and produce internet resources. Journalists are now expected to be multi-taskers, and may for example be asked to learn how to podcast whilst creating a print version of a news article, while also editing video packages to be uploaded to blogs or their news organization’s website. This may lead to a journalist being spread too thin over his diversified tasks, so decreasing the quality of the news compiled. The traditional approach of generating news using a camera crew, sound and presenter is now looking dated and is no longer financially feasible.
Role of Citizen Journalists
The Web log, or blog as it is often known on the internet, is one of the main reasons why citizen journalism has become so popular and widespread. A blog is the published content of an individual over the internet, and may contain his or her written thoughts, uploaded videos, or news that he/she has gathered. A blog can contain almost any type of multimedia product. The network of blogs on the internet today is called the blogosphere. According to Technorati, a website which tracks blogs – the number of blogs online has been doubling on the internet every six months since 2003.
The power of the blog lies in the writers – the man in the street, intellectuals, scholars, political activists, journalists and ordinary man on the street. While many of these blogs have personal content, others are political in nature and openly contribute to public discourse of social issues. However, many of the authors of these blogs are not competent to address the issues at hand.
Qualified journalists undergo on average, three years of formal education and training to achieve their degrees in journalism. They are bound by standards that ensure their work is always valid, credible and accurate. Citizen journalists who contribute to blogs, forums, and other websites are not subject to any industry rules and standards. For example, the Journal World’s “Citizen Journalism Academy” in the United States, has 25 local citizens who regularly submit news reports to the newspaper and its TV station partner. Compared to the rigorous training of journalists, the academy’s citizen journalists only had to undergo five sessions of training on news writing and other topics lasting only a few days (Rich, 2009: 11). OhmyNews, the worldwide leader in the citizen journalism movement (based in South Korea), offered an alternative journalism educational degree to people who wanted to be citizen journalists. They remodeled an abandoned rural elementary school to implement rapid training.
In the United States, the Society of Professional Journalists trained people to become citizen journalists using a one-day training program – in stark contrast to the typical four-year degree in journalism. There are also pseudo-acknowledgements of the code of ethics of journalism. Online newspapers like Minnpost.com, require writers to sign a contract that confirms they understand these ethics. This undertaking is merely a token compared to the hard training and rigorously developed professionalism of qualified journalists (Meyer, 2009: 41). The need to formally train to become a journalist will soon lose its appeal. If training for one day is believed to be as good as training for more than four years, and if both are considered true forms of journalism, then journalism majors will soon disappear from schools and universities.
Several television networks in the United States, for example MSNBC and CNN, use citizen journalists to report on events, especially breaking and fast-developing ones like natural disasters. This may be an efficient way to gather news, but there are inherent dangers in using unqualified journalists, with a substantial threat to privacy being one. For example, in South Korea, a female student was branded the “dog poop girl” just hours after someone took a picture of her leaving her dog’s feces inside a subway train. South Korean internet users chastised her for breaking social norms and posted pictures of her online. Soon, the mainstream media picked up the news, with the resultant publicity traumatising the student and causing her to leave university (Wikipedia).
Since citizen journalists are not bound by the same standards and ethics of qualified journalists, the risk of placing news-gathering abilities in the hands of amateurs must be carefully considered. The unacceptable loss of privacy referred to above is likely one of many unintended consequences of facilitating and using citizen journalism.
Role of Amateur Photographers
Citizen journalism also impacts negatively on the quality of photography made available to the public. Stock photography has been hardest hit by the rise of amateur photographers, and has seen the price of traditional stock images plummet. Professional photographers who rely on the sale of their images are now at the mercy of citizen photojournalists. Anyone with a cellular phone with a camera can take a photo of an event and post in on Twitter or Facebook. The process of taking the shot and loading it to the internet with a worldwide audience can take as little as a few minutes. Photojournalists who are paid to ensure that the public get high quality images are thus competing with citizen photojournalists who produce inferior imagery. Currently, because of citizen photojournalism, speed and not quality is the winner in the marketplace. The July 2007 London bombings accurately reflected this tendency, with many traditional newspapers running grainy, badly composed images on their front pages.
Supply and demand will eventually make professional photographers redundant, and their high quality photos will become inaccessible. Photojournalism is all about representing a story through an image. Photojournalists, who have trained for years to capture their images according to the nature of the storyline, make sure that they are giving their audience the pictures they need to see. The image they produce is an accurate and appropriate representation. Regrettably, the careers of professional photojournalists are under threat because of the upsurge in citizen photojournalism. The training, work experience, educational background and work ethics of photojournalists will no longer be relevant.
Citizen photojournalism also has the potential to reduce privacy. With professional journalism, all photos are taken with permission. It is part of the ethics of journalism which every journalist should observe. Even editors cannot publish a photo just because they think it is interesting, or because they think it will make the news sell. Clearly such restraints are not in place with citizen journalism, and pictures posted on blogs for example, rarely have permissions. Celebrities, who are still entitled to enjoy their private lives, have had significant invasions of privacy, in part attributable to citizen journalism.
Professional photojournalists never manipulate or modify their images to suit public consumption; this is against the ethos of their craft. However, citizen photojournalists are known to digitally modify images at times. The software to do this is widely available with most point and shoot cameras. In short, citizen photojournalists have the power and means to create a new version of “the truth” in order to attract the attention of the public. The end result is that the public are not being informed – rather they are being misled.
It is easy to point out the positives of citizen journalism, especially if one considers the contribution to the reporting of news related to spontaneous events like natural tragedies. Their contribution also enriches and encourages public discourse as more people are empowered to talk about issues that are of concern to society. However, the dangers of citizen journalism are significant. Having substantial numbers of untrained journalists writing and blogging their version of the story has the potential to mislead the public. News publications are required to assure the public that the news they report on is true, unbiased and reflects both sides of the story. With contributions from citizen journalists and photojournalists, these assertions are immediately in doubt. The credibility of reporting institutions may be at stake.
Training and experience are the factors that separate professional journalists from their amateur counterparts. If news organizations feel the need to use the cheaper services of citizen journalists, they should ensure that the training of citizen journalists is on a par with the basic expectations of professional journalism. Proliferation of opinion in the internet is acceptable, but that information needs to be accurate and verifiable.
Privacy issues also need to be considered. Interested parties need to look past the perception that citizen journalism levels the playing field, and instead need to consider whether their privacy is being compromised.
The public, watchdog bodies, pertinent government authorities, consumer and journalistic organisations, all need to assess the issues in the citizen journalism debate. Mechanisms and procedures need to be considered and implemented to ensure that news is accurately and professionally presented. There is far more at stake than the pride and careers of professional journalists. The need and right of society to be reliably informed needs to be secured and affirmed