Citizen Journalism – Power to the People?

Citizen Journalism (pic from Flickr user 'Peter')

Citizen Journalism (pic from Flickr user 'Peter')

The debate around the impact of citizen journalism, or user generated content (UGC), on traditional forms of media is a sensitive one. It is never easy for an established profession to practise self-criticism, but this discussion amounts to much more than that: journalists have to examine a revolution which could erode their necessity. As Liebling said: “[f]reedom of the press is limited to those who own one” – now that millions of people do, albeit in digital form, the picture has changed. With these points in mind, it is not surprising to read doomsday stuff like this pessimistic email from an anonymous Telegraph employee.

Two significant contributions to the debate were made this week. Last Monday, Jeff Jarvis blogged a passionate defence of UGC. Prompted by criticism of citizen journalism for the inaccuracy of its reporting, Jarvis asked whether the main problems that the media has to confront stem from “professional journalism and its jealousies” or “citizen journalism and its failings”. His view was evidently the former.

The next day, Max Hastings delivered a lecture at City University where he said that “reporters are now required to deliver news to readers and viewers through multiple outlets – podcasts, blogging, TV soundbites. Yet their proper role is surely to gather information and translate it into publishable prose”. Likening the plight of the modern hack to a chef who also has to wait on tables, he argued that there are still skills in journalism which make it a worthy profession and that up-and-coming techniques of supplying news are distorting this.

I stand somewhere between these two views, and will make my case with the help of Rupert Murdoch. He demonstrated in a speech five years ago that he was an early bird looking to catch the worm of citizen journalism, noting that people “want control over the media, instead of being controlled by it”. I watched roughly thirty minutes of Sky News on TV this week, and in that short time I was struck by two snippets which demonstrated that Murdoch meant business. The first was a programme responsive to user preferences, where the ordering of news items was determined by how many times related online articles were accessed on the Sky website. The second was an advert formed from a montage of user generated content, including video footage of the beating of Rodney King by police, which ended with a caption claiming that Sky is “first for your news”.

At first glance, Sky News seemed to be welcoming citizen journalism with open arms, but on further investigation this was not quite the case. In terms of the programme I saw, Sky journalists still dictate what is news on their web site; user input is then channelled to decide which of these pre-determined items are most newsworthy for the TV slot. Also, the user-generated content that Sky receive is vetted by editors, the same approach that the BBC website takes with its Your News section. Given these caveats, I reckon it is fair to say that the controllers of Sky News believe that UGC is a force for journalistic good, but feel it should not be allowed to exist without restraint. I think this is the right approach for two reasons.

First, when UGC leads to mistakes – and here and here are examples – there is nothing that can be done but let them be corrected by other people and then fade into the ether. Clearly professional journalists make mistakes as well, but they are responsible for their output in the sense that they put their reputation on the line with every piece to which they put their name. Part of the reason they are paid is because they have to be careful to strive for truth in their output. Inaccuracy without consequences is a potentially dangerous concept for journalism.

Second, I think there are genuine concerns about the type of output that citizen journalism is inclined to produce. As the Telegraph discontent said: “[f]acts are no longer the currency they used to be”. UGC can capably provide news in the form of entertainment and opinion, but the risk here is that this output becomes purely partisan and deficient in terms of providing information. Facts are the foundation of news and people must be told them.

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~ by seanbradbury on October 13, 2008.

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