Citizen Journalism Needs a Filter

By Josh Catone
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Last week, citizen journalism took one on the chin when a false report about Steve Jobs’ health made its way onto the front page of CNN’s iReport site and caused Apple’s stock to temporarily plummet, sparking an SEC investigation. Many were quick use the incident to point out the shortcomings in so-called citizen journalism.

On commenter here characterized citizen journalism as something that he identifies with “wild, unchecked, unsourced reporting by anyone with an email address.” Clearly, that would be a problem if reports were published as reliable news without anyone checking the facts. But we shouldn’t discount the merits of citizen journalism out of hand.

Let’s also not get into the exact definition of citizen journalism and whether that includes professional bloggers — am I a citizen journalist? I have no journalism degree, but I’ve written for print magazines and newspapers. Who knows. The point I’ll try to make here is that citizen journalism has a place — even the wild, unchecked stuff — it just needs a filter.

Examples of Utility

Citizen journalists have proven their worth more than a few times over the past couple of years. Last February, when there was a rare earthquake in the United Kingdom, reports broke over Twitter before the major news wires. The same thing happened a couple of months later during the disastrous and tragic Sichuan earthquake in China. The first reports came from people — essentially citizen journalists — in the affected area.

Last fall, when wildfires ravaged the California coast, citizen journalists with cell phone cameras and Twitter access were able to paint a broader picture of events as they happened than any mainstream news outlet ever could — there were simply more feet on the ground. “Current events in California have made the emerging symbiotic relationship between citizen journalists and the mainstream news media quite apparent,” I wrote at the time. “In order to report on the fires ravaging that part of the United States, many news outlets have solicited, and subsequently used, submissions from people capturing news with cell phone cameras and on blogs (and Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, etc.).”

The same relationship between citizen reports and mainstream filtering was apparent during the Missouri bridge collapse and Virginia Tech shootings earlier in the year — both of which received major contributions from regular people who were on the scene faster than trained reporters.

“The real contribution of citizen journalists in a story like [the California wildfires], where whole areas of land are closed off and the fields of greatest danger keep shifting, is in having more eyes on the ground,” Thomas Hollihan, a professor of media at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, told the Baltimore Sun last October. “Citizen journalists are swapping information back and forth – reporting where the flames are now headed or showing images on their cell phones of the fire. And with so much happening so quickly, that kind of information can be really powerful – if it is accurate.”

The Key is the Filter

The reason the above examples were successful, is that the unsourced reports coming in from citizen journalists were subsequently filtered and (hopefully) verified by professional journalists. We expect a certain standard of professionalism in journalism and news reporting that includes fact checking, which simply can’t be met if we don’t know who is reporting and what their sources are.

However, clearly, citizen journalism has its uses.

“It may be a mistake for news organizations to keep begging people to send them stuff. That’s the way they think — centralized, controlling, exclusive,” writes Jeff Jarvis, who wonders if the Steve Jobs incident demonstrated citizen journalism’s failings or the mainstream media’s jealousies. “But the better structure may be for journalists to curate the best of what is out on the web. Rather than playing wack-a-mole on the occasional mistake/rumor/lie sent it, editors would better serve if they found the best content anywhere, not just among that which was sent to them.”

The keyword there is curate. Citizen journalism needs curators. Once the noise is sorted from the signal, Joe on the street corner with a cell phone camera can make significant contributions to the reporting of news and Mary in her living room and trust what she’s seeing.

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  • The idea of having a mandated filter in the person of “professional journalists” is fatally flawed. Under such strictures, reporting by citizen journalists becomes watered down to the point of becoming nothing more than filler. Examples abound on CNN and the Weather Channel, whose idea of “citizen journalism” is to show pictures uploaded by their viewers. Nothing new is being reported, just a pic of a waterspout snapped by Joe from Clearwater.

    No one is saying that citizen journalism is inherently as reliable as professional reporting. It isn’t. But because (in America, anyway), much of what passes for professional journalism has its own corporate filtering in place–no reporting that upsets the applecart, nothing that might embarrass the owning corporation or the board of directors, etc etc–and all too often driven by powerful political interests to the point that news reports become little more than weapons to turn against your opponents, it is hard to claim that professional journalists are much more reliable.

    “Citizen journalists” and pundits have to make their bones just as professional reporters do. I said in the previous conversation that I no longer trust a particular news outlet, but focus more on individual reporters such as Seymour Hersh or Ryan Singel. But now, if I want punditry on subjects that interest me, I visit college professor Juan Cole’s blog to learn about events and issues in the Middle East, or former civil litigator Glenn Greenwald’s blog to read more about civil liberties issues and general political events. (They are both unabashed progressives with a leftward slant. I make no bones about my political persuasions. Righties have their own preferred bloggers and citizen journalists/pundits. Whatever blows your skirt up!)

    While citizen journalism must continue to be explored, questioned, and verified–just as professional reporting must be–it only works if it is allowed to be published, and vetted, without such restrictions as you’re suggesting. The filtering must come after publication and not so much before. In this case, the marketplace (of ideas) must be allowed to rule, rather than arbitrary gatekeepers deciding what is and what isn’t legitimate before allowing you and I to see it and make our own decisions. We have to be well-informed, skeptical, and slow to make judgments based on what we read. But don’t take away my right or ability to judge for myself.

  • Addendum: Don’t take this as some kind of advocacy for raw, unedited material to be published as is with no oversight whatsoever. I don’t agree with Josh’s viewpoint, but I’m not advocating journalist anarchy, either. :)

  • JournalistIC anarchy….