Saturday, January 27, 2007

The benefits—and drawbacks—of citizen journalism

An independent style of reaching the masses is gaining steam and entering the mainstream. With the advent of new technology and new media, the phenomenon known as “citizen journalism” has been taken to a new level.

Without a newsroom, journalists, bloggers and mere citizens have become able to send their messages to the masses. There is debate with respect to the viability, accuracy and importance of citizen journalism. Although leading news stations, such as ABC and CBS, have reported on the rise of citizen media (Online NewsHour), many leaders of news organizations are still trying to figure out whether or not participatory journalism, as it is also called, is needed in their companies. These leaders are filled with “concern and a healthy skepticism” (Outing).

Accoring to an article on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, there are many layers of citizen journalism. The first steps are to open up to public comment and include citizen add-on reporters (Outing). For example, some news Web sites allow their readers to comment on the articles they read. These observations can shed light on topics that were not thoroughly covered or properly explained by the writers. Unfortunately, some news organizations don’t allow this because they feel they are giving up too much control to the readers (Outing, Dorroh). They forget that an Internet post can give birth to significant discussions that keep news stories and relevant subjects in the minds and conversations of the people.

One such example of “indymedia” took place in 1999 in Seattle. During this time, there were riots at World Trade Organization meetings held in the Northwest. Self-appointed journalists were taking the initiative to report what was going on. In doing so, they painted a very different picture from what the local media portrayed as anarchy (Social Tech). A group called the Independent Media Center was formed, helping change the way journalism is done today (Social Tech). While such groups generally have trouble maintaining an objective point of view, they also can provide worthy alternative points of view.

Another similar group, Backfence, started up in May 2005 (Dorroh). Building their own technology with about $100,000 they earned as consultants on similar projects for major media outlets, Mark Potts and Susan DeFife founded an "all local" citizen journalism company in the Washington, D.C., area (Dorroh). For a relatively cheap price, the technology employed by Potts and DeFife allows its users to post information and photos, and to edit the posts of other citizen journalists. In this way, their Web site is like a hybrid blog-wiki.

Overseas, the citizen journalism trend has also taken root. Within 24 hours of the London bombings, the BBC received about 20,000 e-mails and 1,000 photos from citizens trying to contribute to the news (Woullard).

Some folks wonder if we have taken the idea of “freedom of the press” too far. While I have extolled some of the virtues, such as accessibility, of citizen journalism, critics remain opposed to the practice. The downside of allowing average Joes to publish their ideas is the possible harm done to reputations due to faulty or “suspect” information (Coursey).

“I am not a big fan of the ‘citizen journalism’ being practiced on the Internet these days,” David Coursey of wrote. “One of the tenets of ‘real’ journalism is that you don't distribute information that hasn't been checked. Citizen publishers are under no such obligation…”

Although corrections can be made to inaccurate posts, some readers or viewers may never see the corrections and assume the original story is true (Coursey). Besides, who wants to take the time to correct what Coursey calls “wacky Internet posts?”

There are pros and cons to citizens’ journalistic efforts. However, despite its drawbacks, the ability to get fresh and varied opinions and information make citizen journalism a significant part of media in the Information Age.

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