"Citizen Journalism" is one of those phrases that sounds pretty straightforward, but when you get right down to it, most people aren't entirely sure exactly what it means. Basically, a citizen journalist is someone from outside the news business who engages in the kind of journalism that is traditionally the purview of the professionals.
A citizen journalist might send pictures of a significant event into a news outlet. They might share stories about newsworthy experiences they've had. Or they might analyze, report and even disseminate the news themselves. Both MSNBC and CNN have been tapping citizen journalists to augment their coverage – they've used their websites to solicit and post photos from private homes in New Orleans, audio and videos of how people are responding to Katrina, and stories about how high gas prices are affecting peoples' lives, for example.
Are bloggers citizen journalists? Well, yes – and no. Those of us at Public Eye, for example, most certainly are not – after all, we're paid employees of CBS, and that puts us in a different position than someone who starts a blog on their own. But many independent bloggers can certainly be considered citizen journalists: They report from war zones, do the kind of analysis one might find on opinion pages, and post photos of news events on their sites, despite the fact that they're not affiliated with news organizations.
There are, however, reasons for news organizations to be skittish about relying on citizen journalism. The benefits are clear: There are immeasurable positives in having someone who happens to be on the scene of a developing story take pictures or call in a report. But there is also a chance that those reports won't be reliable. (There's that chance with the professionals, of course, as well – Jayson Blair being the most obvious example – but at least, with professional journalists, their jobs depend on their truthfulness.) As David Carr wrote Monday in the New York Times, "I was at the World Trade Center towers site the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. People had seen unimaginable things, but a small percentage, many still covered in ash, told me tales that were worse than what actually happened."
But wait, you might say – can't people exaggerate when they're talking to a reporter looking for a quote? And the short answer is that they can, and do. But reporters go to great lengths to authenticate information whenever possible, as the standards and practices of their news organization requires. Citizen journalists don't play by the same rules. Larry Kramer, President of CBS Digital Media, says he's loves the idea of using certain kinds of citizen journalism – like a cell phone camera video of a major event no one else has captured – but argues that it should always go through a filter. "If you want us to use it, you have to subject it to our standards," he says. "Let us see it and evaluate it." He adds that CBS News has to maintain its editorial authority, and that providing an unfiltered forum could compromise that. Citizen journalism, he says, is not necessarily "first-tier journalism."
And while most citizen journalists want to disseminate honest information, some may well have less noble motives. What if a partisan wants to portray a politician in a negative light, for example? He or she could create a photoshopped photograph of that politician in a compromising or embarrassing position. (It's not that hard to do – check out this doctored shot of President Bush seemingly fishing while on vacation in flooded New Orleans.) If such a photo appears on a blog, that's one thing, but if CBS publishes it on its website, the organization is putting its editorial authority behind it. And a citizen journalist with strong feelings about the environment or gay marriage, say, could consciously color their coverage of the issue while feigning objectivity. (Many media critics, it should be noted, say the mainstream media already does this – which means there's no reason to consider citizen journalists any differently.)
Despite the potential pitfalls, there are plenty of reasons to welcome the rise of citizen journalism – as long as news consumers understand what they're dealing with. Current TV, for example, a new cable channel, solicits video submissions from viewers about news in their daily lives that one would rarely see from traditional news outlets. OhmyNews, a collaborative online newspaper with the motto "Every Citizen is a Reporter," has become an influential news resource in Korea and elsewhere. Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere, focused on the Bay Area, is providing a model of citizen journalism on the internet. And blogs, chat rooms and message boards of all stripes provide a range of opinion and reporting far beyond what traditional news outlets can offer.
As those traditional outlets take their baby steps towards integrating citizen journalism, it will be interesting to see how much ground they are willing to seed to the non-professionals – and how much the non-professionals want to have to do with the traditional news outlets in the first place. We'll keep our Eye on it, and we hope you do the same. In the meantime, if you have an opinion on the role of citizen journalists in traditional media, please let us know in the (new and improved!) comments section.