Is Citizen Journalist Coverage of a Plane Crash More Important Than a Plane Crash?

Last Updated Jan 16, 2009 11:40 AM EST

By now, I assume everyone has been thoroughly drenched in plane crash coverage. (Please forgive the standing-on-the-wing-of-a-plane-in-the-Hudson pun.) Well, try this on for size: last night when I Googled the term "plane crash", Google News placed two stories about citizen journalist coverage of the plane crash above the plane crash itself. (See screen grab.)plane-crash-google-search-m1.jpg So, let me get this straight: the fact that TwitPic crashed because people were clamoring for a picture of the downed plane outranks the story that everyone survived? And how about the no. 2 link: "Citizen photo of Hudson plane crash shows Web's reporting power."

Partly what's at work here is some weirdness embedded deep inside Google's algorithms, perhaps one that shows a bias toward news that enhances the digital world's standing when pitted against boring old Associated Press stories about 155 people surviving a plane crash. It also underscores the fact that journalism can't get over the "citizen journalists" story.

At the risk of sounding like a social media snob, it seems like the media -- even the technology-focused publications -- get way too excited about the fact that mere citizens can post pictures and blog posts about a breaking news event. For the last few years now, every time there's a big news story, there are endless stories about the fact that citizen journalists are participating. Is the rise of citizen journalism one of the best outgrowths of the digital age? Absolutely. But the phenomenon is so thoroughly embedded in the way stories break now that stories about citizen journalists covering stories seem passe. A better approach for major media sites is to integrate citizen journalism content with their own coverage, as the Los Angeles Times did, aggregating links from Wikipedia, The New York Times, Flickr and so forth into a well-rounded package of coverage. Yes, the newspaper did write a story about the citizen journalism story, but it should also get props for realizing citizen journalism's validity as something more than just a "gee-whiz" phenomenon. I'm not suggesting that citizen journalism is the same as "professional" journalism, but, like it or not, the citizens who shoot photos of news events and upload them, and who post eyewitness accounts to blogs, are now part of the reporting pool. To not include their voices is to not fully cover the story.
  • Catharine Taylor

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