Thursday, April 16, 2009

Citizen Journalism: So Easy A Citizen Can Do It.

I am a journalism major. I've spent the last four years or so learning a trade, much like Medical students train to be doctors and English majors train to be English teachers (kidding...kinda.) And this isn't the greatest analogy in the world but imagine how journalists must feel about the concept of citizen journalism, where regular people without professional journalism training cover events for news organizations. How about citizen doctors? Again, perhaps a weak analogy.

And there's the tension: The old boys in the newspaper club are having a little trouble with the idea that just anybody can do what they do. (People who, for one thing, never had to pass the UNC J-school's notorious Spelling and Grammar exam or Media Law class.) But while the editors of a dying industry scoff, as they once did with readers' comments and blogs, popularity for the idea of citizen journalism is growing, and thus, some of those editors and news organizations are having to jump on the bandwagon. Think I-report on CNN. Even the Washington Times is moving in that direction.

So here's the question: What do you think? Would you trust any ol' dude to go to an event and then turn around and objectively and correctly tell you what happened?

Well, let's look at the Huffington Post. The site published its Citizen Journalism Publishing Standards this week, just in time for its extensive coverage of the anti-tax tea parties that swept the nation this tax day.

The standards read like an introductory lecture from one of my journalism professors.
You know, fact check, name sources, don't opinionate, use correct spelling. And actually ask questions, as in, do some reporting.

"Interviews conducted by phone or in person will be an essential part of every story," the site states. "After all, you're not writing an essay but reporting on an event."

The problem is the contradiction. These citizen journalists are being asked to do objective reporting on an event dominated by the right for a site that is considered by many in the traditional media to lean a little too hard to the left.

When Politico reported Arianna Huffington's defense of her site's citizen journalists -- “Everything we are asking citizen journalists to do is purely journalistic." -- the comments section below that article swelled in retort.

"Every Huffpo 'reporter' will say it was a bunch of right wing anarchists who don't like having a black president," one post read.

Check out the Huffington Post's Tax Day Tea Parties Page. It's hard to differentiate between the citizen stuff and the pieces they found on other sites, but buried somewhere in there is proof. Proof that citizen journalism may or may not work. And proof as to whether or not I have wasted four years and thousands of dollars to learn a trade easy enough anyone can do it.

- Alexander T.


  1. Alexander,

    I am a music major, and your major is probably very analogous to mine in terms of usefulness. Some of the most successful and popular musicians (and sometimes the most talented) have very little or no training, and yet make a living. Trained journalists, like classically trained musicians, will always have their place, as in news institutions with very strong reputations. However, some events, like the CES ( or sporting events, do not need journalists who have been thoroughly trained to report on much more delicate or politically charged news. You would never ask Britney Spears to sing the role of Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and so you will never see citizen journalists on the front page of the New York Times.

  2. As Ben has stated, its a very fine line between trained journalist and citizen journalists. I don't think that citizen journalists will ever be held with the reputation and dignity that we hold are trained journalist with for such media as New York Times. However, with that said I do see a place for citizen journalist in medias like local city newspapers, such as The Fayetteville Observer. Those that hold the title as being "citizen journalist" may perhaps have the acquired knowledge and skills of being just as an adequate trained journalist, but because they may have not gone to school for journalism or been apart of the J-School program they will not be upheld to the higher status of "official" journalist.

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  4. I trust trained journalists more than citizen journalists to accurately provide me with up to date information about events. It is hard to be objective and not relay your own opinion when writing articles. It is because journalists that have more training are more likely to give you information that most resembles unbiased truth that people believe them. Citizen journalists have not developed the same skills and knowledge, so they are not able to leave their own opinions out of their work. A journalist's credibility lies in the same thing as other professional jobs, the education and training they received that allows them to be called journalists

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  6. Sorry about the creepy post from Eve Carson. I'm the new Director of the Eve Carson Scholarship and when I submitted the post, I didn't realize I was logged into the Gmail account we use for the Scholarship. See below for the comment.

    As a reader of Huffington Post I realize that I must be exceedingly more skeptical of the content published because of the nature of the writers. However, in something as nationally widespread as the Tax Day Tea Parties, it helps to have a reporting base in as many locations as possible. In my opinion, this may only be possible with citizen reporters; especially in a time of decreasing readership and thus profits to traditional news sources.

    I'm in agreement with the previous two posts: it's important to have traditionally trained reporters writing for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other important national new sources. However, citizen reporting makes sense for smaller news outlets with fewer resources. However, readers should be vigilant in realizing the source of their news, taking into account that the journalist may not be of the highest quality.

  7. Honestly, I feel that citizen journalism, when read, should always be taken with a pinch of salt. People should know that they could be reading content containing potential bias and that it is difficult for a citizen, without formal training, to keep a piece of reporting ojbective. In fact, objectivity is difficult for any person.

    Back home in Singapore, our main newspaper has a section citizen journalism as well. It's called STOMP (Straits Times Online Mobile Print). From what I've seen and asked around, it doesn't have a very good reputation. Pictures taken with mobile phones of people eating on the bus (when they shouldn't) or other inconsiderate acts are often featured. These trivial matters are hardly newsworthy or of any substance.

    Even the way in which the website is layed out, makes it seem somewhat like a tabloid-- implying the fact that it shouldn't be taken seriously. In no way do I feel that the jobs of journalists may be jeopardised.

    On a side note, perhaps disclaimers can be put on such websites to forewarn readers of potentially biased content. How, then, does it become any different from any old website that features user generated content?

  8. I think citizen journalism is fine, and certainly serves a purpose in the vast landscape that is "news." However, I agree with the above posters about the risk one takes when reading the work of a citizen journalist. So I think the correct thing to do is follow the steps taken by the Huffington Post in the provided links---let the readers know the work is from a citizen journalist. In this way, the readers go into the written work with different expectations, and are not blindly taking everything written as fact. Like people have said here, citizen journalists aren't going to be breaking front page news, but they can certainly add to the discussion.

    On a different note, as a journalism major I do believe that journalism is a profession that should come with training. There's a reason why journalists are protected under the First Amendment--they serve as the fourth branch of government, the watchdogs for citizens to hold our government accountable. I believe that people entrusted with such an important role should possess certain skills that an ordinary person would not have, and so journalists, whether they're trained in a school or on the job, should have a certain something that distinguishes them from other citizens.

  9. I do not think that just anyone can be a journalist. I think that it takes the correct person with the proper point of view and can convey those feelings in the least amount of words is what makes a good journalist. I view an example that is near and dear to my heart. I take it from the medium of radio and although I know it is not journalism in its purest form, it is media that has to be conveyed to the masses. I have been listening to the Tar Heel Sports network since I was a child and hearing Woody Durham make the radio call of UNC basketball and football. I have grown to enjoy his comments immensely and love to tune in during games. He is infinitely better than his "co-host" by the name of Jones Angell. While Jones tries his best and does a fairly decent job, he is NO Woody Durham and never will be. I enjoy Woody but I can sense rivalry between the ages through the words on the air. The old guard vs. the new guard. I simply think that there is an art to conveying thoughts to an audience correctly no matter what the medium may be. It is not something that can be done by everyone.

  10. Sensing the author's latent or maybe not so latent sensitivity to citizen journalism, it is obvious that there are positives and negatives to the situation. First of all, I think for the most part, I will definitely trust a trained, educated journalist over Joe Schmoe to give me the news that I want. However, the important issue here is whether this average people can be accurate in writing and reporting news and I think the answer to that is yes. Sure, they won't have all the knowledge and background as a UNC-J school grad but on the whole, the stories may not look entirely different. Where the difference lies is in the long run. I think that someone who has training and knows what he or she is doing over a long period of time will certainly be more reliable and clear with what they are saying, rendering these people completely necessary to keep effective journalism. I think that J school grads are gonna be just fine in the end, but the idea of citizen journalism certainly opens up some options for the people out there looking to get a range of different things in their news. So, its a ok thing I think for now, but I still value our journalists.

  11. How do you distinguish between an educated journalist and a trained journalist? I think personally that is when journalism becomes questionable to me because there are times especially online when there is no distinguishing of the two. Personally I think there needs to be a way to designate training to increase credibility with readers. Every other job seems to have a title, so why not journalism? Why leave it to the readers to question whether what they are reading is accurate or not?

  12. We discussed this issue extensively in our blogging presentation. Do we count what bloggers write as true and trustworthy? I'm inclined to lean toward the "no" field yet I find myself perusing the likes of indie music blogs,, and huffington post. I think there must be some standard for those "citizen journalists" associated with legitimate news sources, yet the internet is a free zone through which anyone can post their ideas. People make money everyday for simply posting their ideas-- its become an increasing trend that numbers lead to credibility. A book I recently read "Bitter is the New Black" was started by the authors' blog; as her reader clientele grew, the books' future publishers noticed the blog and offered her a book deal. I think there's an increasing trend in desiring the laymen's view on issues-- yet can the layman even give an un-biased viewpoint?

  13. I think the whole idea behind citizen journalism is to expand the content that one of these sites or newspapers can present. For instance with the citizen journalists for the Tea Parties on Tax Day, several different writers can express their opinions on the unfolding events. This is where they try to exploit the objective point of view these ordinary citizens may have.

    I don't really think that this citizen journalism will overtake the real journalism jobs that are out there, and to answer the question you pose: I still believe graduating from J-school is the best way to get into journalism. There are tons of writing styles and techniques that 4 years of education can teach you, something that just an ordinary citizen probably would not know about. Sure both writers would be able to present the facts/etc about what is happening at an event, but what makes journalism interesting is the way the content draws a picture of everything. A normal person is not born with the skills to writing perfect journalism, so there will always be a subsection of college to teach people how to be good journalists.

  14. I think that citizen journalism can be useful and that it adds to reporting the news instead of taking away from it. To me, it honestly does not matter who is reporting the news as long as they are knowledgeable about the subject they are reporting. Yes, official journalists receive training but are they necessarily skills that one cannot learn overtime? There are a lot of people who are doing jobs now that they do not have an educational background in. They just kind of stumbled into it and as time went on they learned what to do and what not to do.