Does journalism need citizen journos for survival?

Can citizen journalism coexist with traditional journalism? The short answer is of course, but it seems to me that this relationship has become more than mere coexistence – it is a question of survival, for both sides. Let me explain.

Journalism, as we all know, is taking an economic battering. And not only is ad revenue and newspaper circulation falling, but in the face of dwindling finances, many media owners seem more determined than ever to wring every penny they can out of their companies. Cue hundreds of journalist staff cuts across all the platforms, and it soon becomes very clear that it is just not possible for journalism to cover anything like the geographical area it used to. There are simply not enough journalists to go round. Regional news is suffering the most now, and national news will duly follow – after all, national news depends on gleaning stories from the regionals, and news shortages will pass right up the food chain – no one is unaffected.

Which is where citizen journalists come in. We need citizen journalists to shed light on stories that would otherwise sink under the radar. News is now emanating from locations that journalists these days are unable to cover. Citizen journalism to the rescue!

Or is it? Is citizen journalism actually largely responsible for some of professional journalism’s financial problems? Which begs the classic chicken and the egg conundrum: which came first, traditional journalism’s decline or citizen journalism’s rise? Perhaps the decline in newspaper sales is down to the fact that citizen journalists are supplying more varied news for free, or maybe the reduction in the media’s ability to report news from more locations has fuelled citizen journalism’s rise, giving it increased value and importance.

Of course, it’s not that simple, but from what I understand, newspaper sales were diminishing well before citizen journalism was even out of the womb. Rather than being used as a scapegoat for professional journalism’s woes, citizen journalism could instead be used to bolster the newsrooms. Professional journalism lacks the resources to be able to find the stories that citizens in all corners of the earth are able to bring to the world’s attention. And citizen journalism can’t, in my opinion, go it alone because it lacks the credibility of professional journalism. In other words, they need each other.

Having said all this, you would probably assume that I’m a devout worshipper at the cradle of User Generated Content, but you’d be wrong: I can’t deny that the rise of citizen journalism is making me a little bit nervous, not just for my future career but for journalism as a whole. I have more than a few concerns over the fact that citizen journalists can effectively libel and defame their way across the internet without anything to stop them. Professional journalists must learn media law, strive for objectivity and abide by ethical codes, and if they don’t, they are often heavily penalised. Citizen journalists, however, can skip along, spreading opinionated news, inaccuracies or just plain libel without great fear of repercussions. Although it’s a spoof, some aspects of the video do have a ring of truth around them. Take these voice-over quotes, for instance:

“People will believe anything these days, so make up a story, fact or fiction.”

“If you want to create a stir, manipulate your work so it appears more newsworthy.”

“As your popularity grows, so does your credibility.”

A million miles away from what sometimes really happens? I don’t think so.

Video by citizenjournalist50 at YouTube

Ultimately, until citizen journalists are willing to run by the same rule book that trained professionals must, then they don’t merit the title of journalist. Although some may believe that journalism is a trade rather than a profession, trades still have codes of conduct. And to be a journalist, you have to start behaving like one. Richard Stokoe, head of news at the Local Government, suggests establishing some ground rules for citizen journos, but crucially doesn’t say how they would be implemented, which is a key hurdle in the debate. But once this is resolved, then hopefully both professional and citizen journos alike can work together better towards what is meant to be a common goal: spreading truthful, accurate news.

© Melanie Hall 2017