A day without journalists: could citizen journalism fill the void?

Starting young: A citizen journalist

What would happen if you sucked all the journalists out of the UK for 24 hours? Would citizen reporters and social media be able to step into the breach, or would confusion reign? 

This was the question posed by the Guardian’s Paul Lewis at a debate at the Frontline Club yesterday evening (June 28), which brought together panellists from Sky, the BBC, and a citizen journalism website to discuss the future of newsgathering and the changing media landscape.

Yet this scenario of a country without journalists was similar to what happened during the riots last August, said Lewis, as the violence continued into the early hours.
“Through no fault of their own, Sky and the BBC were forced to pull out their teams. And if you turned on the TV, you could only see what had happened up until that point when they pulled them out. But if you went online, you had a constant stream of people updating and that was quite journalistic,” explained Lewis, special projects editor at the Guardian.
“If you ask paid professional journalists, ‘if we lost them, would the world fall apart?’, they would say yes,” he added.
How to verify user-generated content (UGC), and whether journalists will be able to maintain their role as the most trusted source of information in the face of growing citizen journalism, were among the key issues of the night, organised by news website Blottr.

“User-generated content is at best unreliable, at worst untrue”

Chairing the event, TV and radio presenter Nikki Bedi pointed out the inaccurate tweets that were circulating on the night of the riots, and highlighted the importance of journalists verifying information so the public can know what’s really going on.

“I remember reading tweets that a D&G shop had been smashed in Westfield, but there isn’t even a D&G shop in Westfield,” she said.

“There’s always been disinformation,” replied Lewis. “What’s interesting is not that it’s propagated in social media but that it has the ability to self regulate,” adding that Twitter users were good at spotting untrue rumours.

Journalism for the masses, by the masses
Gavin Sheppard, marketing director at Media Trust, said validating information was just as important for the consumers of news as it was for those who produced it, saying: “User generated content is at best unreliable and at worst completely untrue”.

“Whenever I see something on Twitter, I go to the mainstream news organisations to find out, ‘is it really happening?’” he said.
However, there were ways that journalists can check the accuracy of UGC, said Matthew Eltringham, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, who explained that the BBC has a team in place whose main job is to verify information.

“The teams get in touch with the people who sent the tweet,” said Eltringham. “If that’s not possible, there’s a whole series of tests we put it through. If it’s a video, what accent are they using? What’s the weather like? If it’s sunny in the video but the weather says it was raining there at that time, then that’s another test.”

When asked by Bedi whether Sky News used the same stringent set of tests in their approach to UGC, Mark Evans, head of home news at Sky, replied: “Yes, we are very stringent. We don’t tweet anything from any other news organisation at all.”

“I think there’s still a place for professional journalism in the validation process,” he said, but added that journalists have to accept that they are not keepers of facts or information anymore.

Do journalists have the monopoly on trusted sources of news?
If journalists no longer have the monopoly on information, can they at least claim to be the most trusted source of news?

“Yes, there are trusted brands, but I can think of some mainstream outlets that are not that trusted,” Lewis said, adding that some trusted outlets are not that mainstream. “I’m willing to contemplate a world where the journalist is not the most trusted source.”
A world without journalists: can citizen journalism fill the breach?

However, journalists’ credibility as a trusted news source is undermined by retweeting unverified facts, or even just asking whether something is true, because the reporter is giving credence to the information simply by asking questions about it on social media, said Lewis.

“On the question of trust, I have noticed that there’s a slightly new culture among some younger journalists that we have this grey news that exists for a period of a few hours where you don’t know if it’s true or not,” he said. 

By tweeting questions like ‘Is this true? Can anyone verify this?’, Lewis said: “You are propagating something there and there’s a certain contract with whoever you are sending information to, which is that you are saying you think it’s true.”

When it comes to trusting sources you meet online, rule number one is to meet the source face-to-face to make sure they are who they say they are, and to help establish that their information is correct.

“People can make up whole identities online,” said Lewis, referring to the example of the lesbian blogger Gay Girl in Damascus who hoodwinked a number of newspapers, including the Guardian, after turning out to be a married American man living in Scotland. “It’s not a person until you meet them.”

After an accident, call 999? No, post photos online
The immediate reaction to take photos of a dramatic incident, rather than call the police or ambulance first, and the ethics of doing so, also came up.
“If you see a fire happening, who do you call, the
police or fire service, or would you put it on Facebook first?” asked Ravin Sampat, editor of Blottr. 

Blottr featured a story on its website yesterday (June 28) about someone who had spotted the decapitated body of a man who had just committed suicide by walking in front of a train, and had decided to post a photo of the corpse on Twitter. The picture was seen by the victim’s son before he knew it was his father.
“That’s morally reprehensible,” said Bedi.
The debate ended on an upbeat note, however, courtesy of Sheppard: “I think there will always be a role for paid journalists. I think there will be a greater opportunity for people to have their voices heard.”

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© Melanie Hall 2017