Interview with Dave Earley on Citizen Journalism

April 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Journalists, Media, Print, Social Networking

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Stephanie Sword, a Griffith University communications student, asked me a few questions for an assignment. Below are Stephanie’s questions and my answers about Citizen Journalism: read on to see my comments on the term itself, and generally where I think the “citizen” fits in the evolving media environment.

Stephanie: As a professional journalist, how do you feel citizen journalism is radically reforming/challenging traditional journalism?

Dave: I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think citizen journalism is both a challenge and a benefit to traditional journalism. The traditional journalist/s can’t be everywhere. Not only can they not be everywhere in physical location, but they also can’t be everywhere in terms of local/inside knowledge about the players and/or access to them. While it might take professional journalists to distil the news into something short and consumable, citizen journalists can either be there more quickly, or are already there because they are simply involved in the story.

In the age of media convergence, how does the role of a ‘citizen journalist’ differ from that of a professional journalist?

Defining a citizen journalist is going to be difficult. Is the citizen journalist the person who calls themselves that, and makes an attempt to get to stories, find stories and produce content about those stories? I would argue that if someone calls themselves a “citizen journalist”, and makes an attempt to be at stories, or cover news, then they are going to be more of a freelance journalist. The difference is that Citizen Journalists don’t do “journalism” or “news” reporting as their job. They have real jobs.

I would say the citizen journalist is the person who just happens to be there and records an event occurring, whether by photo/video/audio or text. Instantaneous “text” citizen journalism might be something like Twitter updates, so include the Denver plane crash, the Hudson River plane crash or the Mumbai bombings, where someone has posted text online (in these cases on Twitter).  At the same time instantaneously there can be images posted online (via Twitter-based services or Flickr). [Yes, those links are shamelessly only to News Ltd content].

So the role difference is huge. Citizen journalists are likely to simply be recording an event they have witnessed or been involved in, and generally making that content available online. When they make it available online, it’s most likely to be in the same way they share their lives online with family and friends through a variety of social networks. Putting it online won’t be for the purpose of being citizen journalists, and I can’t imagine anyone would want to call themselves citizen journalists.

Should media outlets actively encourage citizens to become amateur reporters by using new digital media technologies? What are the benefits of soliciting viewer input into news programs?

I don’t think they should encourage people to become “amateur reporters”, they should encourage people to share their content for some of the reasons already mentioned – they’re there when mainstream media can’t be, and they’re the people the story is happening to. People will be amateur reporters if they want to be, but I’d say there are very few people who would want to describe themselves as that. It’s semantics, but I think that specific terminology would likely turn people off. The benefit of soliciting public content is that it is content the news program or site would not have, and it’s also newsworthy content that otherwise might have never been seen by the wider public.

There is always going to be a struggle with mainstream media not just using that sort of content because it’s available (although not freely available, it’s still subject to copyright) and published on the web, but also having the hubris to decide which of it is the most important to show. Naturally, advocates of the semantic web argue that if the content is already going to be made available on the web, mainstream media shouldn’t have to “aggregate” it, because suitable information systems will be in place that will automatically present individually relevant information. But we’re not there, and mainstream media will continue to present to the public what it thinks is important, interesting, and/or will make them money.

What are some of the issues of relying on public eyewitness accounts as news suitable for broadcast? Can you clarify the difference between a citizen journalist and an eyewitness?

The issue of relying on public eyewitness accounts for news for broadcast is that you might have no way of verifying the person knows what they’re talking about, was even present when the incident occurred, or has not manufactured a fake news event. Similarly there’s the chance, and it will happen, that PR will move into the realm and submit subtle marketing or positive spin material (see my co. If you’re asking about relying on public content (user generated content) for broadcast, the actual provision of UGC is fairly infrequent, so can’t be relied on as a basis for news. In terms of relying on UGC as “broadcast quality”, like grainy video from a phone, I don’t think it’s an issue. No matter how bad the “quality” of the content, if it’s compelling you use it.
I don’t know if I can clarify the difference, but I think I can suggest the difference between a citizen journalist and an eyewitness is that a citizen journalist has recorded the event in some fashion – audio, video, or still image. An eyewitness is perhaps just that, someone who has seen an event but not recorded it in any other way, so can only relay what they have seen. The difference then is that you listen to a first-hand account as it is told by an eyewitness. A citizen journalist can still do that, but I would think they would also present some kind of material to go along with that. Again, as in the last question, I don’t know about media using the term “citizen journalist”. If someone who provides content wants to think of themselves as a “citizen journalist” and call themselves that, let them claim that.

There was a fifth question, but I’ve asked Stephanie for an explanation of what the question is going for. I may update this post at some point if I have an answer for that question.

Stephanie asked me for the interview because, in her words, “you represent the next generation of journalists, where these approaches are much-more integrated with your work than say my generation (journalism was very different when I was first in uni in the late 80s, early 90s)”.

Thanks Stephanie! Also, this was an email exchange interview.

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