The Problem With Citizen Journalism

Citizen journalism is a lofty little term thrown around by interweb idealists.* This week, Trevor Knoblich wrote a column on PBS’ MediaShift blog asking “Can Citizen Journalism Move Past Crisis Reporting?”

No, no, it can’t. 

The first lonely comment under the article was from an editor of CNN’s iReport, championing the organization’s efforts to help citizens gather and report stories that are meaningful to them and their community. The idea is a noble one, and it’s executed pretty well. They give tips on good storytelling and provide free music clips you can use with your video. There’s even an Assignment Desk where editors ask for submissions on a given topic (this weekend it’s ‘Show Off Your Mom Tattoos’). 

It’s not that I am against any of the actually very good work iReport can curate. It’s that most of the contributions have the “not vetted” by CNN label which means they’re the equivalent of a YouTube video about your student debt, the plight of tipped workers, or, your mom tattoo.

Remember the editorial pages of your local newspaper? I’m not sure what the difference is between the mail section and the sporadic opinion pieces from local readers published in those pages and things like iReport, or even most columns published on the Huffington Post. 

There isn’t. Citizen journalism maybe doesn’t have to ‘move past crisis reporting,’ because getting scoops and video from non-reporters is the only time it’s really valuable. Calling for ideas or stories on certain topics via your Facebook page, like NPR often does, is not the same thing as ‘citizen journalism.’ It’s just calling on regular citizens to be sources. 

You can’t expect people to report on climate change or a city council scandal for free, no matter how many tips on recording audio you give them. It’s sort of a fake label for news gathering. On iReport, for example, your video, once it’s vetted can be used across any of CNN’s platforms by any producer. Continuing the cycle of ‘exposure’ instead of payment. And once an organization does pay someone for using their work, then it’s just freelance journalism. 

So how about this? Let’s just call platforms like iReport what they are: social networks with a newsy twist. And let’s just stop using the term citizen journalist. Call them sources, or hire them as a stringer, and be done with it. 

*Update: after a brief Twitter conversation with Jay Rosen, I think it’s worth noting that 1)being an interweb idealist is a good thing to be and 2) that there is actually a very good definition of ‘citizen journalism.’ I think the term is too often thrown around as a sort of buzzword for news related business models; that it’s either going to ‘save’ the press in a digital age, or be its downfall. The fact is that it is neither. Rosen writes: “That it can happen without the media is perhaps why the media cannot get a grip on it.” Citizen journalism should not be treated like a thing to be dealt with, but embraced as a way of running your particular media machine. It’s worth still talking about — please do so in the comments.