Citizen Journalism’s Impact: Thoughts from Two Media Professionals

February 21, 2018

On Wednesday, February 14, 17 people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As students were hiding in a closet, student David Hogg pulled out his phone and began to interview those around him. When asked in an interview with CNN why he began to film while there was an active shooter, Hogg said that he wanted “‘to show these people exactly what’s going on when these children are facing bullets flying through classrooms and students are dying trying to get an education.’” Hogg is now being acknowledged for his bravery as both a student and a citizen journalist.

Citizen journalists are individuals within the general public that analyze, compile, and distribute news and information on a given platform. In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in citizen journalism’s popularity. This can be largely attributed to an increase in the public interest towards politics and news-gathering, as well as technological advances that have made spreading information easier for the public. While some may see this practice as somewhat compromising to professional journalism, the Huffington Post asserts that “the advent of smartphones has given power to the people…This has resulted in a society that’s more politically active than ever before (and that’s a good thing).”

As a part of one of my projects for Mercy’s Mentor Program, I conducted two interviews about citizen journalism’s impact on professional journalism. My first interview was with Dr. Sara Magee, an associate professor and the Chair of the Communications Department at Loyola University Maryland. My second interview was with Mr. Jason Newton, a morning anchor for WBAL TV 11 News (and my mentor for the program). I asked them both to answer the question “How has citizen journalism helped and/or harmed professional journalism?”

Dr. Magee said that, first and foremost, “citizen journalism is a good thing.” She believes that, while perhaps citizen journalists are not equipped to fully report on a story, they are at the very least capable of “‘alerting’ people to what happened” so that the journalists “can take it deeper.” Additionally, journalists can benefit from using the information released by citizen journalists; reporters will often look at the public’s posts to “gather needed information and interviews.”

Mr. Newton said that citizen journalism is becoming “the new voice of the community.” He believes that it gives people more access to information as it is unfolding (as opposed to a journalist reporting on the aftermath of a situation). While he does assert that “those videos still need the same editorial scrutiny that a reporter/photographer receives,” Mr. Newton sees that professional journalists and citizen journalists must “find a way…to co-exist without sacrificing the integrity of the news department.”

However, citizen journalism can come with some drawbacks. Dr. Magee acknowledged some of the downsides, mentioning that “there’s a danger when just anyone can post video, sometimes with no context of what’s happening, and get people to think or see something that might not be the most accurate representation.” She added that people “have a lot of power,” and that, by calling their posts ‘news,’ these citizen journalists know that the story they want to tell can be perpetuated, even if it is “not the most balanced.”

Mr. Newton similarly added that he does “wonder if [citizen journalism] has hurt the industry,” and that he “just [doesn’t] know that answer.” He believes that “news organizations have to be careful of what and how much they use from citizens.”

Whether citizen journalism is aiding its professional counterpart or threatening its integrity, citizen journalists are undeniably influential in today’s news industry, and are not going to go away any time soon. Having a better understanding of citizen journalism and how it can be used to aid professional journalism can augment the power of both the citizen and the professional field.

There are many motives for citizen journalists. Some seek attention on public platforms, while some others want to gain recognition from the professional field. These motives can often lead to misleading news, or the sensationalizing of materials in order to make a story seem more newsworthy than it truly is. However, there are many other citizen journalists that recognize that they are in the right place at the right time to tell a story that other people cannot. This is the type of citizen journalism that can truly work alongside the news industry, upholding journalistic ethics and understanding the importance of their role.

Later in his interview, David Hogg said, “If I was going to die, I wanted to die doing what I love, and that’s storytelling…And this is a story that needed to be heard…At least our echoes, our voices would carry on and possibly make some action.’”

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