Mon, 05/22/2017 - 17:37

Posted by Belinda Alzner on February 23, 2012

What should the relationship be between “citizen journalism” and traditional journalistic professionalism?

As a question often asked, this was the topic of a panel at a UNESCO conference last week, as Hannah Vinter reported at

Vinter said some main points that were discussed included the need for professionals to rigorously fact-check information given to them by citizen journalists, but that collaboration between the two groups was key in achieving thorough news coverage. Vinter writes:

According to [head of Al Jazeera social media Riyaad] Minty, one way to ensure accurate information from citizen journalists is to build strong relationships with trusted sources. "Don't wait until something's trending on Twitter before you report it," Minty advised. At Al Jazeera, he said, "getting in early and building these relationships is absolutely pivotal to what we're done".  

Minty also stated that Al Jazeera also uses experts with the right language skills and local knowledge to verify citizen contributions. In the end, he said, only a small proportion of citizen journalism submissions are broadcast by Al Jazeera: of the 16,000 videos that came to the news organisation during 11 days of Egyptian revolution, less than 300 or 400 made it to TV screens.


Of course, the idea of citizen journalism and the debate around its role in the industry is nothing new. In 2008, David Silverberg wrote that citizen journalism goes as far back as 2004, when citizens with cameras captured the aftermath of the Asian tsunami. Silverberg also said that traditional news needed to embrace citizen journalism in order to make the most of the participatory elements of Web 2.0; Online news could no longer be passive, he said.

So, while some news organizations are making a conscious effort to engage users more often, the question invitably is raised that asks if the era of participation and citizen journalism threatens the role of professionals? In an interview with Lisa Lynch for J-Source, Alfred Hermida, UBC professor and co-author of the book Participatory Journalism, talked about the relationship between citizen journalists and those who are professionally trained:

There’s long been this idea of the mythical citizen journalist, but it hasn’t turned into a reality. I think what’s happened instead is that we’ve seen that citizens can indeed perform acts of journalism, but in fact they’re doing a fragment of the actual work a journalist does. They might be taking a picture, they might be reporting on something happening in front of them, they might be sharing a link, they might be editing an entry in Wikipedia. But the idea that you’re going to have a mass public who are going to do what journalists do hasn’t really transpired except in very specific circumstances.

What do you think? Is collaboration the key to making the most out of the relationship between citizen journalists and those professionally trained? 


Silverberg may date Citizen Journalism to 2004, but you can go a great distance back in time to the coffee houses in Mecca (banned in 1512) Europe (500 in London 1740) and the US, in all of which the first of what can be called citizen journalists passed around news, information and criticism.  Tom Paine wrote the pamphlet "Common Sense" (take that, Mike Harris) in  1776 and sold over 100,000 copies when there were only about 2 million colonists in total.  Journalism and newspaper publishing arose out of refinements to the coffee house/pamphlet process and in the US were greatly aided by the inclusion of the coincept of a free press in the Consitution. In a sense, all early newspaper writers and publishers - frequently the same - may be termed citizen journalists because they, like the CJs of today, were considered subversive by the establishment.

I am not certain that every CJ of today wants to be "subversive" or "muck raking", both of which declined in mainstream journalism as conglomeration of the industry proceeded.  It is hard to bite the hand that feeds, even when that hand is dirtied by the work of other parts of the organization.  And for many CJs it is the thrill of access in the guise of reporting that motivates them.  Some are dazzled by the idea of their names online in bold letters, and others are genuine journos at heart.

Some of the above is taken from a paper on CJ which I delivered at a meeting of the freelancers' group of the CAJ last year.  I found, as well, that early online newspaper experiments were, for the most part, colossal failures.  It is labour-intensive to keep updating web pages all day and night; CJs usually cannot be paid (except in rare circumstances where a news outlet just had to have what they were offering - for example, a picture of the fellow who shot John Lennon) and for the most part there is no feedback from the public, which can trigger the feeling that one is operating in a vacuum.  This is not a fancy.  Millions upon millions of people never read a newspaper, and the statistics for other forms of reading were equally dismal:

* 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.

* 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.

* 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

* 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a book store in the last five years.

* 57 percent of new books are not read to completion.

But it is on the point of writing that many newspaper professionals draw the line in the sand - excluding CJs.  CJs, for the most part, are not trained - not through experience and not through schooling - and may not know what to ask, when to press a point, what makes a good lead, a good story, what to avoid that may be libellous . . . these days, unless the event being covered by a CJ is extremely important or theirs is the only coverage, the input from CJs is almost more trouble for beleaguered staff (such as remain) to deal with.  Pictures and tapes are a different matter.  Is it any wonder that there is a mass migration to the visual rather than the written world?

What should be the relationship between CJs and journalism?  If there were no turmoil I could envision semi-formal arrangements in some areas of journalism, perhaps even to the point of further training, via fellowships, of the more committed and promising CJs.  But in light of the epidemic of failing publications, consolidation of remaining outlets and back-shop treadmills being staffed these days by the last remaining writers and editors - who may not look kindly upon lower-compensated amateurs - I see real difficulties of the two segments working together.

Finally I would like to add my conclusion (taken from my CAJ paper) about CJ:

That many people envision their names in lights and are willing to give away their work to gratify their egoes will only weaken the resolve of publishers to keep paying fair rates.  That occasionally a good writer will come out of the hundreds of wannabes is also a given.  But "citizen journalism" is not the threat many of us had imagined it to be, if only for the nuts-and-bolts aspect of putting something up and keeping it there, well-researched, factually correct, technically sound.  Citizen journalism is the dream child of those who feel dispossessed, the hero who will right the wrongs and put their names in light, at last.





J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.