Can and should citizens be journalists? The concept of “citizen journalism” is controversial and I aim to take a closer look at both sides of the story.
There is clear evidence that citizens can be journalists, from the blog post you are currently reading, to Tweets about the Charlie Hebdo shooting (#JeSuisCharlie probably rings a bell), to YouTube videos of September 11 attacks. Nevertheless, journalists assert that journalism is a professional field and should not be practiced by untrained citizens. They argue that citizen journalists may not know how to use reliable sources for research, explain facts effectively, or follow ethical guidelines. I agree, an implication of citizen journalism is that people cannot trust everything they read and should always double check information.
While many journalists feel offended by the term, others ask “Why not?”. Why can’t regular people working in an amateur way share information that’s available before reporters arrive or that might otherwise not be explained in the news? To solve some of the issues mentioned above, large news platforms have created opportunities for citizens’ voices to be heard while providing readers with a verified stamp of approval. These include CNN’s iReport and Fox News’ U-Report.
Even more, YouTube and Pulitzer have joined forces in the $10, 000 contest, Project: Report, to provide YouTube users an incentive to become semi-professional journalists who report quality stories rather than just fleeting moments they happened to capture on their iPhones. In addition to promoting more serious and respectable journalism on YouTube, a PBS article explains blogger Shawn Smith‘s idea that the Pulitzer contest also connects “citizen reporters to their local media outlets. Those outlets, looking for their next star reporter, would do well to check out prospective journalists’ abilities on YouTube. That increased visibility could be a real boon to aspiring journalists in a tough job market.” Despite Project: Report‘s strengths, it actually brings up another issue: the contest disregards the distinction between the terms citizen journalism and civic journalism.
While citizen journalism describes regular citizens who share information for free, civic journalism entails people getting in touch with local communities to find and discuss topics that interest them but are not found in mainstream news. In this way, civic journalism defies accidental citizen journalism and the two terms should not be interchanged. Considering this division, I think Project: Report mislabels its videos as demonstrating citizen journalism. For example, the winning video shows a community for developmentally disabled people, demonstrating that everyone has abilities and disabilities which do not necessarily make them better or worse. The video is a good example of civic journalism as it illustrates a local story that would not be considered “news” by traditional media.
In another example of civic journalism, a woman challenges general perceptions of Somalia through microblogging on Instagram. The 27 year old Ugaaso Boocow recently moved to Mogadishu from Toronto. Her Instagram posts of beaches, restaurants, freshly squeeze watermelon juice, cake, jacuzzis, and bright buildings are captioned with rap lyrics or satires on Somali family life. They show a completely new, beautiful and lighthearted, side of Somalia – a country usually characterized by war.
Although Boocow began posting pictures and brief videos on Instagram to stay connected with her family in Canada, her viewer base has expanded to a worldwide community of over 53,000 followers. An article and radio report in PRI explains that “She wants people to have a positive connotation to the words, Somalia, Mogadishu, and East Africa.” Her social media success shows that she is already succeeding in accomplishing this goal.