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How Do We Go About Applying Ethics to Citizen Journalists?

by on October 26, 2016

As we progress further into the digital age, the notion surrounding what constitutes a journalist has begun to evolve. Private citizens with little to no journalistic training are now able to actively participate in the storytelling process by recording videos and taking pictures on their smartphones and/or tablets. Not to mention fast-growing platforms like blogging, “vlogging,” “tweeting”, etc. that allow anyone with access to a server to create an account. These practices, among others similar, have come to embody a new form of journalism known as “citizen journalism,” that allows the general public to take part in constructing the narrative rooted in the age-old question, “what is happening in our world?”

It raises the question though, how do professionally trained journalists navigate this budding frontier? Is there a way to mix the two worlds? How do we contextualize all the information being thrown at us, and what standard do we hold it to? These are questions that journalists are just now starting to grapple with and explore.

I agree the beauty of citizen journalism is giving eyes to journalists in places where they might not be able to see, as seen with cases like The Arab Spring and the Ferguson Protests, that preceded the police shooting of unarmed black man Michael Brown. The collective footage that came out of these historical happenings was revolutionarily in the way it normalized public participation in documenting injustice.

An infamous case that pre-dates modern citizen journalism, that may have benefited from the evolved technological sphere we exist within, was the cover-up of the Tiananmen Square protests in China circa 1989. The Chinese government squandered the efforts of Chinese students who were protesting their desire for economic and political reform. The students gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the death of proclaimed martyr of the cause, former Chinese Communist Party (CPP) leader who advocated for democratic advances in China: Hu Yaobang. Protests continued to escalate from there, leading up to what is referred to by the Chinese government as the “June 4th Incident.”  

Western media didn’t pick up on this story until Chinese students began using fax machines to get the word out to rest of the world about what was happening in Tiananmen Square. If this were to happen today, one can speculate that regardless of the firewalls put in place within the country that prevent Chinese citizen access to certain apps and websites, there would be someone who would find a loophole, and a way to get onto Twitter, immediately able to put out a live shot of what was happening in the Square as it unfolded.

That brings us to the problematic stage of citizen journalism. How do traditional news sources like the Times or the Post, contextualize the information provided to them by citizens?

As consumers and producers of news media, we must always be aware of the frame in which we recall and understand an event or issue. What biases do we have? Is there a conflict of interest between me and my relationship with the subject? These are questions that a trained journalist, for example, would (hopefully) strongly consider before deciding what to cover and how to cover the subject of their next assignment.

Do citizen journalists think about how what they’re recording or writing relates to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics? Do they work to minimize harm done to sources and society? Provide context to their viewership? Clearly identify notable sources?

Some may, some may not. So does this constitute their journalistic credibility based on the definition we’ve come to know and understand? These questions have no clear answer right now. It’s hard to say what the next step should be. Should we integrate these journalists into the newsroom? The argument can be made for why we should, but it can also be made for why we should not. For one, as aforementioned, the beauty of citizen journalism is it’s ability to produce a collective of information that mainstream news sources may not be privy to. If news outlets were to capitalize on the stripped perspective of the citizen journalists, the viewpoint would no longer be raw and real. There is no “higher up” telling them to capture the moment, for the sake of shedding light on unspoken truths but also for the sake of compensation. When the money aspect is removed from the market, stakes become lower, and the practice of everyday humans recording their discontentments with other everyday humans becomes one of the most raw documentations of the human condition that professional journalists, and the public, have the opportunity to witness.

So where do we go from here? What’s next?

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One Comment
  1. As you said, citizen journalists can provide a look into a whole other perspective in many situations; but, it is indeed up to professional journalists to sift through the videos and other recordings to ensure that they are truthful (meaning real in the first place) and necessary to the story.

    It is paramount that journalists fact check citizen journalists and ensure that there “reporting” is trustworthy. Due to the fact that citizen journalists are not bound by the same ethics that professionals are, and that they may be swayed by their own personal bias, checking in on the sources is a must.

    There are kinds of citizen journalism that we should be wary of. Videos that reveal most of a story are one thing, but edited or biased videos quickly become problematic. If a citizen journalist captures a portion of fight or protest, for example, it is up to the professional journalist to use the information to do their own reporting rather that just use that video as is. Put in a better way, journalists can use citizen journalism as a spring board for their own reporting.

    That being said, there are some things that reporters just cannot get without the help of citizen journalists. Whether it is updates about the Arab Spring or a video illustrating police brutality, citizen journalists add another (human) dimension to reporting. Journalist cannot be everywhere, but people with cameras and the internet already are. To answer one of your questions, I believe that a mix between traditional and citizen reporting can be possible and will expand journalism (it already has).

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