The Problem with Citizen Journalism

Want to get a professional journalist fired up? Tell them how much you love citizen journalism and how it’s going to put them out of a job. Sure, it’s a sweeping generalization, but every time I talk mention citizen journalism in a post or tweet, I get at least one message from a journalist that says “it’s not journalism.” I think the problem most professional journalists have with the term “citizen journalism” is the word “journalism.” If we just called it “people blogging or tweeting stuff that’s going on right now”, or if we called it an “eyewitness account”, there would probably be less controversy around the subject.

If we used a “citizen mechanic” to change the oil in our cars, or if a “citizen chef” invited us over for dinner on the weekend, would the hard-working mechanics and chefs of the world get their feathers ruffled? Probably not, but then again, who knows?

Journalists often go to college to learn their trade. Many journalists have spent years honing their craft, toiling away at computer screens, or standing in the rain reporting on a car crash, only to be one-upped by some yahoo with an iPhone for Flip Mino that happened to be standing there when news happened.

It can’t be the word “citizen” that gets professional journalists upset, right? After all, we’re all citizens. If you want to get technical, you could say all professional journalists are in fact “citizen” journalists. But that would be silly, and that’s not really the issue, is it?

The truth of the matter is that the world around us has changed. As citizens, we were much more reliant on professional journalists to feed us information in the past. I’d argue that we are still reliant on professional journalists in this way, as the average “citizen” isn’t truly equipped to report on the real issues the way you and I could. At the same time, you can’t discount the value of the content you and I produce as citizens… spokespeople, or eyewitnesses. If there’s value in the content I provide, and you want to consume or share it, who’s to say that content is less valuable than what you can get on the newsstand?

The only real problem with citizen journalism is that it gets more difficult for all of us to decide what to believe. With traditional journalism, it was safe to assume for a long time that the information we were getting was factual. Checked and re-checked for accuracy. Stories were edited in an inverted pyramid, giving us all the news that’s fit to print, up front in the first three paragraphs. Today, anyone can write or record anything and present it as fact – leaving us to serve in the capacity of editors. In a way, we’ve all become citizen editors in this regard. Few people take news content at face value anymore, especially when any of us with an Internet connection can hop on the Web to check other news sources or see what people are saying about a topic on Twitter or other social media.

I don’t have a problem with citizen journalism. I like the concept of getting information from other informed citizens. I also value the information I get from professional journalists. Both approaches to reporting or disseminating information can coexist, and do today. If you’re one of those people that has a problem with citizen journalism, you’re not seeing the big picture.

Can you think of a better example of freedom of speech – or freedom of the press for that matter – than social media and citizen journalism? We’re free to express our opinions as we see fit. It’s up to the rest of you to decide whether or not there is value in that information. If not, go somewhere else. If so, keep on reading.

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