Is ‘citizen journalism’ losing its meaning?


I came across this term a couple of months ago in one of my contextual studies lectures at University. We were studying the role of journalism in our modern era, and the modernisation of journalism itself as a profession and some may say, business venture. Pre-enlightenment we saw a non-professional sort of journalism, in a sense everyone was a journalist. The fisherman who overheard the crew of a trade ship talking about what they witnessed in a different part of the world. The street-boys picking up parts of conversation between two policeman about a murder. Even the ladies who gossiped to neighbours about some controversy with a person down the street. All these were forms of ‘news’, they were significant events that people wanted to know about. 

As time went on and people became more interested in knowing what the ‘news’ was wherever they were, it wasn’t just one man reading the paper at the local public house anymore, it was everyone carrying and reading their own copies of newspapers. And as their popularity increased, so too did interest in creating and producing them. Thus developed the commercialisation of newspapers, big companies buying papers and placing adverts everywhere they could. Along with the commercialisation came the professionalisation of papers, the growing need to produce news was met with people getting paid to find it and report it. These journalists, as named by the emergence of the term ‘journalism’ became professionals.

The journalists were paid to go out and look for news, interesting of course, to inform the public about. It was getting harder and harder for journalists, however, to ultimately report everything that was happening, they couldn’t be in two places at once, and most were not lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to catch something amazing. This is were ‘citizen journalism’ came into play. Normal citizens, going about their daily lives, who find themselves in or around particularly ‘newsworthy’ situations fulfil the job of the journalist and record, whether it be in writing, or more recently video, the details of that particular event. Now this was seen as a breakthrough for journalism, it was seen as an alternative journalism. News reported by individuals who didn’t have any commercial duties or ties to big businesses and rich companies, or corrupt politicians and secretive governments. This was seen as the true journalism, it was trusted as the truth and believed by all.

We’ve seen examples of this recently, such as the use of social media sites in the Arab Spring, informing the world what was happening when journalists couldn’t, as well as footage from the chaos of the Colorado shooting in the cinema, just to name a few. These do show the importance and significance of citizen journalism in every society.

However, I’ve been disappointed and quite shocked with the development and radical change in some cases of citizen journalism, as well as the behaviour and lack of integrity of ‘citizen journalists’. Recently, we all witnessed the tragic event which was the bombing of the Boston marathon in America. Social media sites like twitter where bombarded with information, updates, apparent developments at the scene, most of which came from people who supposedly witnessed the events, citizen journalists. People reported what they saw, and in the flurry of gathering information at such speed, mistakes were made; mistakes that in my opinion were unforgivable. The most significant being when people reported that a ‘Saudi Arabian’ was identified as the suspect, when in fact he was an innocent by-stander who was caught in the tragedy and also trying to help as many other people were. Now many American papers and news networks picked up on this information, and created a story of it publishing it as breaking news. I was truly shocked by this, this was information from unknown people that was spread and picked by supposedly trustworthy news sources, without them checking the sources and truth of it, which was then believed as the truth by the public.

Another very recent example was the Woolwich murder in London, bystanders were the first people to witness the event unfolding. Of course many of them were saying various things to various people and news sources. And before any footage came out of the vile act, news sources, the BBC being one, reported on witness accounts saying the culprits had a ‘muslim appearance’ (a truly loaded phrase to say at all), but when footage emerged, the murderers appeared to be wearing jeans and a hooded top with a beanie hat. Not what I think ‘muslim appearance’ defines, but then again, what does muslim appearance look like, there is no justification for the use of such ideologically loaded language by anyone, much less a supposedly truthful and trusted national news source. This is truly a saddening fact. The BBC’s Nick Robinson did however apologise about using the term, but to be frank, apologies can’t change the matter of the fact.

So the meaning of citizen journalism as the alternative, democratic news source is really put into question after these incidents, and sadly so. Is there any journalism left we can truly trust anymore? I fear for humanity.