Citizen journalism

CNN are close to launching a new website called iReport dedicated to ‘citizen journalism’ (a media term for non-professionals who report and write the news). The citizen journalist has been a topic of heavy debate across many sections of the media, particularly in the NUJ where it is considered a threat to the standards and reputation of the industry.

This is actually a very serious accusation to level. The destruction of brand trust is something which is much feared by the media.Although radicals may recognise in the mainstream press a structurally biased and corrupt series of institutions, whose primary role is to maintain the status quo through a robust news filtering process, for most people the press is regarded a source of reliable information – which in most cases (ie. non-political ones) it is.

While newsgatherers are regarded with suspicion, and tabloids are said to be taken with a pinch of salt, if something is presented by a major news source it carries weight, becomes real to the vast majority. What binds this is trust – the unspoken assumption that on some level, it’s probably true even if the reporter is a bastard and the paper unscrupulous.

Thus the introduction of ‘civilians’ to the newsroom has been met with some hostility by reporters and photographers. The photos are often poor-quality, the reports can be incoherent and miss vital information, and are perceived as more likely to be inaccurate and riddled with personal asides. Bloggers are regarded as untrustworthy sources, as are citizen journalist websites such as Indymedia.

This is partly a function of professional pride (yes often journalists do have some), and in part, it has to be said, it’s down to job cut fears. Numerous editors have repeatedly flirted with introducing more reader-based content, from camera-phone photos to volunteer correspondents, with the unspoken caveat that should this actually work and get the freebies pouring in, reporters would no longer be needed to do anything but spell-check and legal the words of ‘the people’.

What has mostly held our esteemed superiors back, and this is an ongoing problem any radical news source will recognise, is a lack of reliable volunteer labour. There are a lot of people out there, but very few of them seem to put stuff down on paper in a form which can be passed on to others as a serious source – certainly not for free. Fewer still know the meaning of ‘house style’.

Yet Web 2.0 has shown a vast potential for such input. The way in which Flickr, Youtube, Facebook, Myspace and a host of other networking groups have built up vast archives of writing and imagery – all of which they can sell on under the terms of the licensing agreements – has got the more thoughtful of the media executives casting envious eyes across the web. If, somehow, that ability to get something for nothing can be harnessed into a coherent news-swapping service in which millions participate and grow accustomed to writing like reporters, the days of the paid journalist could be numbered.

For radicals, this might not seem such a big thing – a few less arsey right-wing hacks here or there isn’t exactly going to have people crying into their beers (though shame on you for cheering on mass redundancy, some reporters/subs are good people).

But as with most of Web 2.0, there’s a big catch. The entry of a giant like CNN into the field, along with its marketing muscle, brand cache and expertise, could normalise the concept of Web 2.0 citizen journalism, while simultaneously killing off smaller challengers, including concepts such as the infoshop, Libcom and indymedia newswires, in a way which traditional systems have failed to do. If iReport turns into a one-stop shop, where people turn to get all their alternative news, we’re left potentially with the same problem as we have on Facebook or myspace – radical ideas and organising become vulnerable to the whims of the enemy, and our need to register details to work within these systems, or else face renewed marginalisation working with inferior and unused ones of our own, could leave us vulnerable to data-diggers, nosey managers and secret state sources alike.

Posted By

Rob Ray
Feb 13 2008 14:07

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Mike Harman
Feb 13 2008 14:39

I haven't seen this CNN venture until now, but I'd say it's more geared towards cornering the space currently occupied by http://www.nowpublic.com/ and other (generally commercial) citizen journalism platforms that are usually startups. They run on the same commercial + community model as sites like Digg - and which have their prospective audiences pretty much sown up. These are still quite new sites, and mainly used by geeks - so I guess CNN might be able to get less geeky people to use their service, maybe.

As with many other (big) corporate sites which try to clone (smaller, still commercial) sites with already-existing communities - I can't see CNN doing all that well to be honest - in the same way I can't see MSN cloning myspace/facebook successfully). And it's worth remembering that a lot of money is in these web 2.0 sites like Digg - they're well funded, and people already use them. Also, although they appear to be staffless, they're all employing a fair number of developers and editorial staff to keep things ticking over - it's only the actual story submission that's done by 'citizen journalists'. So it's more the agencies that are going to get shut out than roles like sub-editors etc.

In terms of cutting into alternative/political news sources - I reckon the model is a lot closer to indymedia than it is libcom - I try to find stories to nick on some of these sites occasionally, and often come up short - since editorially they're very similar to mainstream sources - celebrity news, American presidential primaries etc. What'd be interesting is how they (and we) would operate if something big was happening. Will give that some more thought though - it's definitely an important trend that should be closely watched.