In an article for the Miami Herald, Pulitzer-winning journalist Leonard Pitts Jr was very clear: citizen journalists could never fill the role of professionally trained reporters. Not only do they lack the training, resources and knowledge of their professional counterparts, they also, in Pitts’s view, are not as willing to put themselves in harm’s way to report a story. Whether or not you agree with them, Pitts’ comments are perhaps understandable when examined in the context of American journalism.
Citizen journalism is on the rise in the US as newspapers are forced to cut costs and become more efficient. Bleacher report, a sports network “powered by citizen sportswriters” announced in 2010 that it would form a partnership with Hearst publications in Houston, San Antonio, Seattle and San Francisco to provide free sports content written by its team of citizen journalists. The deal allowed the news organisations in question (San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate, the Houston's Chronicle's Chron.com, the San Antonio Express-News' MySan Antonio.com, and Seattlepi.com) to increase their sports coverage at no extra cost, all the while attracting new readers and advertisers.
Many industry insiders view the phenomenon as necessary to the evolution of news and reporting. A report released last month by Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication recommended that citizen journalists could be a solution to the problem of the information ghettos found beyond Washington’s main cities. In the many areas left without local newspapers and where Internet connection is poor, Murrow suggests facilitating links between “mainstream media and citizens who can provide reporting from rural areas beyond the news footprint of existing news organisations.” Recent scandals involving hyperlocal news provider Journatic are a testament to the lengths news outlets will go to in order to reduce the cost of covering events in local communities, and it is arguably better to commission articles from volunteers who are passionate about events in their area than outsourcing to the Philippines.
Of course, US commentators have also noticed the negative aspects of perpetuating the idea that anyone can be a journalist. As well as fears that unpaid workers will be exploited and paid journalists will become more and more obsolete, there are those like Richard Roher who are not convinced that the average person can sustain the quality of their work over a long period of time.
Undoubtedly Pitts’s comments were made from the point of view of a talented journalist whose pride in his work and profession drives him to protect them from a perceived threat to the quality of news reporting. However, if we try to apply such concerns to a broader understanding of user-generated journalism, Pitts’ arguments fail to hold water.
Particularly debatable is his claim that professionally trained journalists are more motivated to be daring in their line of work. Developments such as the Arab uprisings and recent events in Syria highlight the important role played by those who are experiencing the news first hand. In such conditions citizen journalists such as Rami Al-Sayed risk and sometimes lose their lives to draw attention to the atrocities they are witnessing.
The development of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook has led to the democratisation of news reporting: anyone, anywhere, can share news updates with hundreds, even thousands of people with the push of a button or the tap of a key. But this type of reporting is not journalism in the traditional sense. Audiences still need experienced news reporters to guide them through the mire of data and information bombarding them on a daily basis. Nothing proves this more than the fate of French citizen-journalist site Agoravox. What began as a portal for everyday people to contribute blogs and comments became a platform for the airing of conspiracy theories, as the site drifted away from its core values.
The opposition between "trained journalist" and "citizen journalist" is however a largely false one. Cooperation, rather than confrontation, leads to an open and interactive journalistic landscape that benefits professional reporters, "amateurs" and consumers. Perhaps not everyone can be a journalist in Pitts’s understanding of the word, but the vast majority are capable of contributing to the communication of the news. A plurality of voices adding to the world of journalism widens debate on subjects in the news and provides professional reporters with a host of new sources.