The rise of citizen-journalism and how this affects traditional media.

With technological advances being encouraged on a regular basis and with the vast amount of money being poured into such ventures, it is easy for some to dismiss the validity of the print industry of today. Yet it was this means of communication that had been the key tool for societies to spread knowledge and communicate on a widespread scale for the centuries prior to the technological era many have grown accustom to in recent years. Unlike the relatively new commodity of the Internet, the mobilisation of the print industry commenced in the 15th Century when Johannes Gutenberg produced the first movable type system in Europe which was faster and more efficient than any previous methods. Many historians and sociologists consider the impact of Gutenberg’s creation to be one of the most crucial developments for Western civilisation. “The printing of books encouraged the development of scholarly research and the desire to attain knowledge. Moreover, printing facilitated cooperation among scholars and helped produce standardised definitive texts. Printing also stimulated the development of an ever-expanding lay reading public, a development that had an enormous impact on European society”. It is also argued that without the printing press, new religious concepts embedded in the Reformation would never have spread at the speed they did during the 16th Century. Further improvements in printing techniques eventually led to the use of the rotary press which was created in the 1840’s and has proved its worth as this is still the primary method for printing on a mass scale in the 21st Century. However since the late 20th Century a new phenomenon has over taken the rotary press, namely the production and widespread use of computers and the Internet.

Initial computer development took place in the 1950’s and these advancements eventually led to the Internet being created as a means of communication and information sharing. Whereas the print industry took several centuries to perfect and arrive at the current state of production experienced today, the Internet took a far lesser time period and the speed of publishing information is unquestionable. In the more economically developed countries, internet access is readily available to the vast majority of the population and with relative ease. This has led to a rapid rise in people using blogs and social networking sites as a way of displaying opinions and news articles on relevant, current topics. This is also known as citizen or grassroots journalism, which is described by Gillmor (2004): “When people can express themselves, they will. When they can do so with powerful yet inexpensive tools, they take to the new-media realm quickly. When they can reach a potentially global audience, they literally can change the world”. With the increased use of the Internet stemming from the 1980’s, many publications now produce an online version with a very similar content to that of the print version. It was this revolutionised distribution method that mobilised the general public to become actively involved in online publishing. This idea allowed the readers themselves to use the Internet in a new way, as Roger Silverstone’s theory (1994) suggests, “that non-professional users of the Internet ‘domesticate’ it to fit into the relevant activities and structures of their own lives”.  Furthermore, “the lack of editorial filter means that the traditional journalistic role of providing information and interpretation for the citizen as a normative function of the profession became threatened”. The role and future of journalists has been drawn into question and this is one of the main concerns regarding citizen journalism. Many argue that what was once a prestigious job title and skilled profession is slowly becoming less esteemed due to the vast amounts of apparent novices entering the online field of the media.

Along with tarnishing the reputation of professional journalists who may have worked for many years to become successful in their field, those opposing citizen journalism suggest that the quality of what is being produced by the public is also tarnishing the industry as a whole. With contentious topics often arising in communities as well as on a larger nationwide scale, reports and articles produced by the public can lack the required objectiveness that the professionals have to abide to. It can be very difficult for those with strong views on the subject matter not to air their opinions through their work, a concept that is supported by Papathanassopoulos (2011): “Arguably, even the model of neutral information that dominates journalism, while it is a thin and inadequate version of news, implies a role for journalism in democracy and expresses the values of openness, fairness, diversity and transparency”. These traditional values that have been associated with the media for many years can be lost through citizen journalism, especially via blogs and social networking sites which can remain unmonitored. Biased or factually flawed information distributed can be very damaging. Hendricks (2010) quotes A. C. Croft who stated that: “Many of the ‘citizen journalists’ manning various ‘new’ media can hardly claim the same experience, objectivity and credibility as a traditional print or electronic journalist. So their output often tends to lack objectivity and ‘third party credibility’”. While questioning the objectivity of citizen journalism, Croft also highlights that citizen journalists will struggle to gain recognition or ‘credibility’ for their work unlike their professional counterparts. Without being associated with a notable or distinguished publication, citizen journalists lack the power to display their information in the public sphere. However should such misguided articles reach the public the results can be devastating, with rumours spreading rapidly throughout the industry via blogs and other social networking sites. There have been several incidents where it is claimed that notable celebrities have died or suffered from severe injuries when in fact this was proven to be false. Drug overdoses, freak accidents and adventure mishaps are often likely assumptions for a cause of death, with ‘trends’ on Twitter often spreading in a matter of minutes. Alleged celebrity affairs are another common subject matter on such sites which can tear families apart. Fortner & Fackler (2011) also question the validity of some reports in the blogging world: “Many of the hot topics in the blogosphere are not so much based on careful fact checking, accurate reporting, and comprehensive coverage, but are more the result of a self-reinforcing process in which somebody’s unconfirmed claim is repeated and reposted until it becomes a meme – a self-replicating and widely circulated idea or piece of information”.

The rise of online content through citizen journalism has also raised doubts over the future of the newsroom, with constant cuts occurring annually from most publications in order to fund online services. Smaller firms and daily newspapers face a constant struggle to earn a suitable profit, with the general public lacking interest in saving such print editions. With the decline in the newsroom comes a decline in traditional reporting out in the field, with citizen journalists often being able to regurgitate information from the web with no effort put in to locate a valuable source. Kamiya (2009) supports this idea. “What is really threatened by the decline of newspapers and the related rise of online media is reporting – on-the-ground reporting by trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity, and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction, and are a further check against unwanted assumptions, sloppy thinking and reporting, and conscious or unconscious bias”. Potential job losses could be inevitable with continued interest in this new online news, and professional journalists may feel heavily threatened by the rise of citizen journalism on the web.

Like most contentious issues, there are several strong cases that support citizen journalism and its rapid rise into the public sphere. But not only is this support coming from the citizens involved in producing such blogs and news stories, but from experienced journalists too. There have been several incidents even since the turn of the Millennium where citizen journalists, perhaps unknowingly, have captured moments and witnessed events that professional journalists in the field have missed. The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, are regarded by many as the catalyst for the explosion of online news which coincides with citizen journalism. The level of worldwide interaction in the aftermath of the event was previously unparalleled, with the internet providing an immediate outlet for the feelings and emotions of both the public and authority figures about the significance of the event. McNair (2009) said: “Real-time news channels followed the collapse of the towers; bloggers, citizen journalists and online news sites recorded the experiences and emotions of people on the streets of Manhattan, and posted their photographs and video footage”. The images and video footage captured by eye witnesses was invaluable for several reasons. It allowed a global exposure of the incident as it happened, from the initial impact to the collapse of the towers and finally the mass amounts of dust and debris that engulfed the streets – invaluable footage that news companies could not capture. Also, those that witnessed the attack provided the content for documentaries, news reports and private online accounts that spread throughout the world, despite the suffering experienced. Much similarities can be drawn from the 7/7 bombings that hit London in 2005. The only video footage of the explosion came from an eye witness on the tube, again highlighting the awareness and importance of the surrounding public, with the video becoming a priority for news broadcasters. “When editors at BBC Television news became aware of the grainy yet spellbinding video, the decision was immediately made to put those images on the air as quickly as possible. The riveting video was broadcast around the world, driving home the horror of terrorism for many of us”. Following this, “…the BBC was alerting viewers and listeners about special Internet links where witnesses could upload any pictures or video they had captured. Response was overwhelming, and the venerable British news institution quickly found there coverage ahead of competitors, all because their viewers had become reporters” (Henderson, 2006, pg. 36). This idea of viewers or citizens becoming reporters explains the importance they have to news corporations. Regardless of the situation, there is a high possibility that members of the public will have the initiative to use their camera phone if they feel an incident is worthy.

But what constitutes a newsworthy incident? Citizen journalism has also become an integral tool in capturing and convicting criminals. The riots that took place in London during August 2011 are an excellent example of how the innocent helped to locate those committing crimes. Video footage helped to name and shame individuals filmed looting and stealing, along with other criminal offences. Video footage that caused outrage was the mugging of a Malaysian student after it initially appeared two men were attempting to help him. After suffering from a broken jaw in two places, the victim Ashraf Rossli, 20, sat injured before being helped to his feet by the two men. But they then proceeded to steal items from his rucksack. The video became an instant viral attraction on Youtube, with thousands of angry comments calling for justice. Through this act of accidental journalism, the two men were identified and found guilty of robbery and violent disorder.

            Also linked with the London riots was the bravery of Pauline Pearce, who was dubbed the ‘Hackney Heroine’ after she was filmed attempting to tackle and confront looters who were destroying her hometown. Again this footage spread across blogs, social networking sites and Youtube as well as making national news. Although unaware at the time, Pearce became an inspiration to many and all through the enterprise of the individual who filmed her in action. The increased use of video and camera phones emphasises how citizen and professional journalists can in fact work together to produce instant and high priority news. Online publications can gain access to such footage along with the public, providing an appropriate mix of professional and blogosphere-type news which can appeal to all audiences. Kolodzy (2006) suggests that this can “represent a new stream for journalism, in which journalists and their public work together to provide information about what is happening in the world” (Kolodzy, 2006, pg. 229).

In the new media era professional journalists and members of the public have also started to interact using the web as a means of communication. Published articles often contain the reporters email address if viewers wish to get in contact and discuss topics further, along with comment sections for audiences to share opinions across the web. Certain publications also use bulletin boards to incorporate interesting or amusing audience input. This is a technique was initially used by ‘Slate’, an online magazine owned by Microsoft. “Snippets from comments are reassembled, with context from the editor plus links to the original postings, in a coherent and entertaining way. This is useful journalism in its own right, even as it demonstrates the value of readers’ contributions” (Gilmor, 2004). This concept is now a regular theme throughout many online news websites, again strengthening the professional and citizen journalist relationship.

In conclusion, there are valid cases to support both sides of the argument. With the rise of the Internet, it was inevitable that citizen journalism would rise in tandem. Such is the popularity of social networking amongst all generations at present and with its ease of use, the future seems to be in favour of the citizen journalist. Twitter and other blogging networks have allowed both journalists and the general public to report news, and it is this which many traditional supporters fear. Cross (2011) reveals in no uncertain terms the perilous situation the traditional media is in. “Newspapers and magazines are folding, print media layoffs are in there thousands, journalists are on suicide watch…” Following this, Cross claims: “The ascendancy of blogs and Twitter has struck fear into the hearts of the mainstream media as citizen journalists regularly scoop news outlets on breaking news. All it takes is a tweet on a cell phone to beat traditional journalists still on their way to the scene”. Despite Cross’ claims of a one sided battle; there is no doubt that those involved in the newsroom will fight the corner of more traditional media methods until the bitter end. The immediate future of the media is safe, but some years down the line differentiating between traditional and citizen journalism may become indistinct.

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