Citizen journalism – yay or nay?

11 April 2012

Written by: Anne Nielsen

The Internet gave us many things, one of them is giving the average person the ability to transmit information globally. What was once a power reserved for only the very largest media corporations and news agencies, is today a power of the everyman.

This power is finely illustrated in the Guardian’s open journalism take on the Three Little Pigs.

When the everyman has the potential power to start riots because of three little innocent pigs, shouldn’t we ask ourselves what the responsibilities of citizen journalism are? With great power comes great responsibility.

The Internet, and the possibilities behind participatory journalism give the public a voice – but is it a valid voice? Take the case of Kony2012, a video created by activists that went massively viral and spread questionable and unverified information to millions of people. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which citizen journalism goes horribly wrong.

Al Jazeera has therefore launched an educational campaign with the ambitious goal of raising a new generation of citizen journalists. For this campaign, they have created a series of video tutorials, where the aim is to teach individuals how to become good citizen journalists.

These YouTube videos, named Al Jazeera Unplugged, cover how to set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, but will advance in the future by covering issues such as using mobile phones ‘in a time of crisis’ and how the professional media can locate and use valid reports from citizen journalists.

With the decrease of newspaper sales, professional journalists throughout the world are being fired, and one can fear that this will decrease the quality of professionally made news content as well. With fewer journalists in the office, there will be little time for in-depth research and thorough stories.

So the question is; who will scrutinize public records and attend government meetings in the future? Who will ask the questions needed in order to expose fraud, waste and political scams? Citizen journalists all over the world will need to fill in these shoes down the road, and it will be up to them to uphold the journalistic standard.

Some quality investigated pieces do arise, but when taking the number of citizen journalists into consideration, ‘some’ is not enough.

I do believe that there is great value in citizen journalism and the spread of media content. One can only hope that Al Jazeera’s ‘Unplugged’ in the future will teach in-depth journalistic skills, such as thorough research and fact-checking, thereby heightening the quality of citizen-produced media content.

The media revolution would be more significant if the switch to citizen journalism brought with it the responsible and ethical fundamentals of journalism. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But if you must – at least get it right.

Anne Nielsen is third-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University. She is currently on exchange from Aarhus University, Denmark, and is upstart’s deputy-editor. You can follow her on Twitter @AnneRyvang.