The Age of Citizen Journalism?

What does citizen journalism mean for professional journalists? Photo courtesy flickr.com/photos/shuttercat7/

I recently received an email update from the Professional Writers Association of Canada, of which I am a member, about a new initiative the London Free Press has announced. The initiative, announced in an article titled Make your voice heard in paper involves collecting stories from readers through a tool called Your Scoop. The paper is encouraging people to play the role of amateur reporters:

“C’mon, admit it, it has crossed your mind while mulling the paper over your morning coffee: Reporter . . . that would be a cool job,” Joe Ruscitti writes.

The article states that they are not lowering their journalistic standards just so that amateur writers can “get [their name] in the lights.” They’ll have their amateur journalists work with a real journalist to get their material up to snuff. The goal?

“We hope by year’s end to have a kind of living body of work that the city’s politicians and business, non-profit and emerging leaders can turn to as the collective will and hopes of the people — you and I.”

While the idea sounds warm and fuzzy, a few Canadians writing associations (and I) are concerned about what this initiative, and other initiatives like it, means for professional journalists. Freelancers have already had an ongoing battle with budget cuts due to the recession, which means much of the writing is being done by staff that are already overstretched. Their salaries cover the cost (while they work overtime) and freelancers are left without new opportunities.

With Your Scoop, professionally trained and dedicated journalists risk the chance of losing their paper space to a group of (unpaid) amateurs, who will be out interviewing their neighbours over the hedge as they mow their lawns. 

That’s what Letters to the Editor are for.

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To read the PWAC’s response to the London Free Press, click here

To read the Canadian Freelance Union’s response to the London Free Press, click here

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3 thoughts on “The Age of Citizen Journalism?

  1. Jesse Winter says:

    Citizen journalism is a thorny subject. On one hand, we’ve got an incredible and instantaneous first-hand view of events as they unfold, thanks to twitter and the cameras that everyone now carries in their pockets. That’s proved invaluable for coverage of things like the G20/ G8 riots, the protests the Middle East, etc. But is that journalism? I don’t think so.

    The problem is that if everyone’s a journalist, then really no one is. Steve Paikin was arrested when a bunch of protesters, many of whom claimed ‘citizen journalist’ status, were swept up in Toronto’s riots last summer. And fair play for the cops who did it, because, in that instance, if they’d given free pass to Paikin they’d likely have had to give it to anyone else with a cellphone and a twitter account. But that’s why professional journalists are so important…they make a commitment to fair and balance reporting of events. They are there to bare witness, not throw stones and then claim press immunity when things go south.

    It troubles me that a publication is actively pursuing using ‘citizen’ (i.e. unpaid) journos as a way of simply saving money. Reporters are reporters and editors are editors (underfunded community papers excepted) and using reporters to edit the work of untrained, unpaid citizens sets a dangerous precedent. Freelancers are important because they cover the stories that staff reporters can’t. When staffers are forced to work double duty, those harder to find stories often get lost.

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jesse. You bring up some very important points. It seems that with the advances in technology, our connectedness and ability to communicate quickly in the world we may also need to redefine what is considered ‘journalism.’ For instance, some news sources use Twitter to get breaking news out there, but this threatens the neutrality of that source because they aren’t taking the time it takes to make sure a story is thoroughly reported before sending out news to the world. Some other Twitter users will take that preliminary news as ‘fact’ and run with it.

      It gets even more confusing. As citizens, we need to know who is a trusted authority in the news. But at times that trusted authority is that average citizen halfway around the world, on the ground, “reporting” live from the riots, from the battlefield. But as you said, though, that’s not journalism. We need a new word for it.

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