Citizen journalism: Opportunity or threat to traditional media?

By Chris Lee

As soon as Osama bin Laden’s death been publicly announced in May 2011, stories emerged that the whole drama of bin Laden’s shooting had been revealed in real time on Twitter by a man living near his Pakistani compound.

So-called ‘citizen journalism’ is nothing new – NMK last took a look at the subject in 2008 – but it has changed dramatically the way traditional media outlets source their stories. But as mobile access to social networks increases, coupled with the ability to take high quality pictures or video and upload them to the Web, is citizen journalism proving to be an opportunity or a threat to traditional media outlets?

Primary sources

For Hans Eriksson, executive chairman of video streaming service Bambuser, citizen journalism provides valuable real time eye witness accounts of events that readers and viewers can identify with.

“Mobile devices and social networks have clearly changed the way information is shared, as users are capable of documenting events, opinions and media instantaneously to the Web, and thus creating their own real time news closer to the scene  faster and closer to what’s happening than traditional media can do,” Eriksson said. “People believe first-hand accounts – meaning citizen journalists have a role to play and its importance will increase massively.”

Adding context to citizen journalism

Media outlets have a responsibility to verify the accuracy of emerging footage and add context to it before presenting it to the public, according to Claire Thompson of PR consultancy Waves PR. She argued that the likes of the BBC and The Guardian lead the way in terms of using first-hand account material, often marking source material as “unverified”.

Thompson told NMK: “I think we have to leave behind our old ‘media literacy’ and understand that it’s the person, not the medium, that counts when attributing a value to content – so user-generated content (UGC) from the frontline in a war zone carries an element of authority (because it was there and we weren’t) that, over time, needs verifying. What the time lag is on verification will be tested over time. Our naturally lagging legal systems are going to have to find new ways to cope, which will eventually establish some clear guidelines.”

Thompson believes that the greatest emerging challenge could prove to be user-curated information, where platforms such as and allow individuals to become publishers. Thompson said that while these currently reach people in thousands at best, they can’t really be held in same category of influence as places with vast visitor numbers like The Guardian, but it is worth observing this space to see who takes a lead and how they develop over time.

Citizens are not journalists

Freelance technology journalist Adrian Bridgwater believes that, while citizens have some role to play in the providing first-hand accounts at breaking news events, the additional context and analysis should be left to the professionals.

Bridgwater told NMK: “Speaking as a journalist, I think there is a profound difference between professional and amateur written content. While we value beyond measure the man who tweeted his picture of the plane that landed in the Hudson River in New York, we do not want to read his ’emotional personal blog account’ afterwards. Leave that to the reporters, who will dress the story with the appropriate level of vinaigrette seasoning and ‘point’ to comments from the man’s blog to provide tasty croutons that leave us (the readers) satisfied and ultimately replete afterwards. What’s next? Citizen orthopaedic surgeons? Save us the misery please.”

One thought on “Citizen journalism: Opportunity or threat to traditional media?

  1. Dear Chris,
    The entire term ‘Citizen Journalist’ is an oxymoron. Every citizen is a journalist. That is the very essence of a free press. Every citizen has the right to write, publish and produce their opinions or their perception of events or even report on events as they see them.

    In the US we don’t license journalists, as other countries do. We don’t license them because under the First Amendment, everyone has the right to publish – hence to be a ‘journalist’. I think attitudes toward a free press in the UK are little different.

    HL Mencken, an American newspaper columnist in the early 20th Century wrote – a free press is free to those who can afford a press. In those days, only the very rich could afford the cost of building and maintaining a newspaper – hence the title ‘journalist’ title was in fact bestowed upon those with the money to invest to buy their way into being ‘journalists’. Today, with the Internet anyone can afford a ‘press’; hence the monopoly based on wealth that the Press Lords once held is increasingly deteriorating.

    Oh, now they may say ‘well, under special circumstances – say a tornado hits your trailer and you have a video camera handy – you can ‘help’ the ‘real’ journalists.

    Bollocks (isn’t that the term in the UK?), I say! Everyone can be and in fact should be a journalist. The more the better. The move voices the better the journalism. The closer to ‘the truth’ we come. No one has a monopoly on ‘the truth’, least of all those who work for a big corporation as paid employees.


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