User-generated trouble

What is the ‘citizen’ to the ‘journalist’?

John Kelly’s report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism called ‘Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: the rise, challenges and value of citizen journalism’ raises several issues in determining the role of a journalist in a media environment pressured by reader demands and the influx of user-generated content (UGC), with audience involvement becoming a hot topic in the industry. The report defines ‘citizen journalism‘ as, in a fundamental sense, the “act of citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information.” If citizens then play an active role, this surely downplays the role of the journalist, who’s responsibilities are being shared – in Kelly’s report the weight of the journalist’s role is emphasised in saying the industry’s promise to tell the truth “elevates it in such a way that failing to live up to that standard can be especially damaging,” compared to other professions.

Now that we’ve established the importance of journalists, citizen journalism increasingly begs the question: what even is a journalist? Kelly’s report asks if it is now

“Anyone who creates something approaching journalism?”

The problem that sits with journalists is that the ‘approach’, the audience creating their own journalistic content, “has the potential to harm the established brand” or undermine journalistic values that working journalists have trained for. Personally, it is relatively easy to understand this sentiment; having studied the nuts and bolts of the title for almost 3 years now, I would pride myself on being able to determine quality content over someone who hasn’t had the training. Jane Singer’s chapterQuality Control: Perceived effects of user-generated content on newsroom norms, values and routines‘ in Journalism Practice focuses on this journalist insistence and belief in their role as gatekeeper, and that although citizen journalism can be a useful supplement it needs monitoring that newsrooms can’t afford.

Both texts take online growth, and the fact that publishing is easier than ever, into perspective – Singer writes: “arguably, if there are no gates, there is no need for anyone to tend them” while Kelly writes: “The media’s gatekeeper function was increasingly obsolete in a world where there suddenly were no fences.” How effective then is holding on to the gatekeeping responsibility? A point that caught my attention in Singer’s text was the comparison to the US and how “the contemporary technological and economic environments in which they work are similar.” Is rise of citizen journalism in mainstream US media (perhaps a result of less gatekeeping?) mirrored in the UK? I recall watching the New York Times documentary Page One last year and being impressed mostly by media reporter Brian Stelter, along with his enthusiasm for all things online, and the publication’s support of citizen journalism guided by their expertise. The New York Times has UGC-based The Local and Newsweek is going digital while the Guardian only discusses its citizen-involved future.

Whether the UK is on the same playing field as the US when it comes to citizen journalism, it is still a worrying presence to most that work in media, and culture blogger Daniel Montgomery puts it bluntly in a parallel situation: Would you entrust your teeth to a “citizen dentist,” or would you leave it to a professional?

Would you entrust your media to a “citizen journalist,” or would you leave it to a professional?

CHECK OUT: A New York Times video about citizen journalism in Iran

The online crossroads

Is new media technology the way out of the journalism crisis?

“The general assumption was that journalism would be revolutionized by new technology.”
“Was”, writes Steen Steensen in his blog series on the promises of new technology, arguing that journalism’s saving grace, the so-called fundamental change brought about by the internet, never happened. He argues that the influence of the internet is much less radical in shaping the role of journalists than originally expected. Those on the side of ‘technological determinism’ however, namely the reductionist theory that technology is the driving force of social development, would surely disagree. Similarly, Axel Bruns blogs on the view that “technology is seen as the only way out of the current crisis in journalism” – is it?

If Bruns is right and Steensen is wrong, why is there evidence that publications are less than enthusiastic about investing in using technology to its fullest potential? Case studies carried out by The School of Journalism at Cardiff University in a report about the Trinity Mirror’s online strategy paints a picture of stress, dilution and the decline of quality under the heavy load of technological demand. “Why is use of multimedia, hypertext and interactivity still so rare?” asks Steensen in his post, following up with “Is it only because online newsrooms don’t have the resources they need to be innovative?” Staff at the Trinity Mirror’s newsrooms would probably say yes, with findings in the report outlining journalist concerns with being spread too thin across content platforms, while at the same time receiving no extra pay or investment for much-needed resources.

We’ve now got adverse circumstances that make it even more difficult to define the internet and new technology as either a problem or solution. Do journalists even control the webspace in question? Robert Picard at the Christian Science Monitor (yes, I know, but bear with me here) argues that staff like the Trinity Mirror’s may get low pay, but that journalists actually deserve it. The value that journalists create, writes Picard, “is being severely challenged by technology that is ‘de-skilling’ journalists,” putting their jobs, and the command of online content, in the hands of almost anyone.

Will the internet then open the door out of a crisis or open a door to more problems?