What is citizen journalism?

Reporting the news is no longer just for journalists. The shutdown of hundreds of newspapers across the country has left a reporting vacuum that people are trying to fill on a daily basis. The result is a diverse collection of websites and blogs that serve as an information hub for many communities. The term for this trend is citizen journalism, and it is an important part of “hyperlocal” reporting. What was once just a job for journalists employed by a news agency has found its way into the hands of those with no formal journalistic background. Many individuals contribute by writing stories, uploading photos, or submitting other community events.

This phenomenon has even been picked up by major media outlets: CNN’s iReport is a prime example. Users are specifically encouraged to use their mobile devices to submit content to CNN and other major media outlets.

There are many ways this trend has improved local reporting. For example, many of the hyperlocal websites that citizen journalists use report on small events that no longer appear in the mainstream press. Also, citizen journalists are able to cover more events and profile a greater variety of events because there simply aren’t enough reporters – especially with all the layoffs and newspaper closures over the last year. With so many smartphones, many people are perfectly equipped to share content. News sites are increasingly using user-generated content, especially when it comes to natural disasters or other breaking news.

There are some trade-offs with this shift in coverage. While news organizations generally aim to ensure that there is minimal conflict of interest between their writers and subjects, there are no such limits or rules for citizen journalists. Readers don’t know exactly how much fact-checking the citizen journalist did, or if there’s some kind of cozy relationship between the source and the reporter. The bottom line is that ordinary people haven’t typically received any formal journalism training – so some details and news text might be a bit rough.

In the past, many people viewed their news with a Walter Cronkite-type credibility – if he said it, it must be true. Unfortunately, for readers of hyperlocal websites, this is not the case. There are thousands of sources contributing to hyperlocal sites every day, and it’s difficult to immediately verify that the information is correct. It’s the dilemma with user-generated content. It creates a great sense of community among users, but it means a lot of the information can be suspect. While most of the content that appears on such sites is likely to be fairly accurate overall, as a reader it would definitely be worth looking at with a critical eye.

Despite these concerns, the trend towards more citizen journalism is increasing. More and more news sites are accepting amateur content, and other sites are building their entire platform around it. The question isn’t whether citizen journalism should exist, but how websites should use it to enhance some element of news reporting.

Thanks to Darla Blackmon | #citizen #journalism

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