Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Citizen Journalism: Yahoo and Reuters Get on the Bandwagon...

This week both Yahoo and Reuters announced plans to use photographs and video submitted by the public in their news publications.

The age of "citizen journalism" is upon us. For nearly a century, "professional journalists" dominated the media landscape. If you were a professional journalist working for, say, the New York Times, you were paid a salary and abided by professional standards and codes of conduct, and probably studied journalism in college as a prerequisite to employment.

But in recent years, as ordinary people have published articles and opinions in the form of blogs, and as they have contributed audio and video content to Web 2.0 and social networking websites (think YouTube and MySpace), this dynamic changed almost overnight. More and more often, "citizen journalists" - aka "normal people" - were covering and even breaking news stories.

It was bloggers who helped topple Senator Trent Lott from the position of Majority Leader, and it was bloggers who contributed toward Dan Rather getting the axe from CBS Evening News for misreporting George W. Bush's National Guard Service records. On the video front, it was an average schmoe at a comedy club who used his cell phone to record Michael Richards (who played Kramer on Seinfeld) spew his racist remarks on stage.

So citizen journalism is not entirely brand new. In fact, many news organizations have already been using photographs taken by amateurs to supplement coverage of events such as the Asian Tsunami, the London subway bombings, the military coup in Thailand, and the war in Iraq.

The announcement by Yahoo and Reuters, then, simply formalizes the already existent presence of citizen journalism in the media landscape. It is only big news insofar as anytime traditional institutions formally recognize new institutions is ever big news.

But buyer beware. While citizen journalism holds promise in democratizing the media, having more news stories covered, and offering a greater diversity of opinions, it also has serious drawbacks. There is virtually no accountability for citizen journalists whose "news report" might be factually inaccurate, if not completely imaginary, and indeed it is even possible that a "journalist" writing about his experiences in Iraq may actually be posted by a second-grader living on the Upper West Side.

Take it all with a grain of salt. As blogger Adelino de Almeida observes, citizen journalism is likely to thrive when it has 1) a local or community focus, and 2) a clear definition of roles. I would add that its particular contribution of photo and video content is vital, both in actual reporting of the news, as well as in acting as a watchdog on traditional media institutions.

And as we try to figure out, then, who should be considered a journalist - is it really anyone with a cell phone or website? - we must also address when constitutional protections of freedom of the press should be applied.


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