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