Pretty much everyone now has the means to report what is going on in the world around them. Even the most basic phone has a camera, and it is simple to post images, video and text to social media sites at the click of a button. Consequently citizen journalists – ordinary people doing the job of reporters – are everywhere.
And there are significant benefits to our understanding of the world. Particularly in straitened times, journalists can’t be everywhere at once and often arrive after the news event has actually happened. In many cases, such as during the Arab Spring, journalists can be banned or censored by regimes and individuals that don’t want stories to be reported. So citizen journalists with camera phones can be our sole source of first hand information. Much of this then feeds into the traditional media, with TV news and national newspapers running stories based on reports filed by citizen journalists.
Nearer to home, the closure of many local newspapers has spurred community activists to launch alternative sites and blogs. Many of these aim to hold local councils and elected representatives to account, using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth key facts about how we are governed.
All great stuff and to be praised, but there are three key reasons that we should be wary about what citizen journalists write, publish and upload.
Firstly, bias. As someone that studied history, I know that bias is evident in anything we say, write or do – whether we know it or not. Professional journalists are trained to understand both sides of a story and (as much as possible) divorce bias from what they are writing. It is why the majority of stories have quotes for and against a subject in them, even if the overall tone is slanted to left or right. Citizen journalists don’t have this training and may well have an axe to grind – potentially making their reports unreliable, whether consciously or not.
Second, the law. The laws of libel apply equally to the internet, as many people found out with the Lord McAlpine case. Again, journalists are trained to understand libel law and what can and can’t be said. Reddit’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated what can happen when citizen journalists are given an unpoliced platform. The site’s Find Boston Bombers thread wrongly accused several people of being involved in the atrocity, leading to harassment of their families and potentially slowing down the police investigation. In today’s instant news cycle, where an unsubstantiated tweet can be front page news in seconds, there’s a real issue with potentially malicious or unthinking reports quickly making it into the mainstream news.
Finally, there’s the area of copyright. Lots of news sites now actively encourage you to upload your pictures, video and text to give added perspective on news and features. The latest, the Guardian’s Witness site, provides the chance to contribute to live news and other content through a smartphone app. Content is vetted before going onto the site, with stories and videos made available to journalists for potentially developing into bigger pieces. All great, except that as soon as you post your prized video, The Guardian gets an unconditional, perpetual and worldwide licence to use it as it sees fit. You may still retain the copyright, but the paper can commercially exploit the content however it wants.
Controlling how news is reported and disseminated is inextricably linked to power. Hence why dictatorships have always censored or removed the free press and run state TV stations with a rod of iron. While much of the western world has moved on from that, media is often controlled by a certain group, making citizen journalism a vital part of the opening up of reporting to everyone. But if it is to truly make a lasting impact for good, citizen journalists need to understand their own responsibilities when it comes to bias, the law and copyright and act accordingly.