Citizen journalism: the Devil’s spawn?

This content is produced by a member of The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

In today’s digital world, everyone has the ability to be a reporter or photographer, with breaking news streamed live to social media, online news publications and TV channels via our smartphones.

The impact of this ‘citizen journalism’ has had a massive impact on newsrooms up and down the country; with print sales and advertising revenues falling, newspapers are closing down and hundreds of skilled reporters are being laid-off.

An article published in the UK Press Gazette at the end of last year, revealed that 198 local newspapers had closed in the UK since 2005, and the number of journalists working on local newspapers had halved.

The resulting staff shortages mean newspapers rely heavily on the public to supply them with news, but this has had a massive (and, I would argue, negative) impact on the sort of news we consume.

Regional newspapers are also no longer papers of records, attending every court case, council meeting, event or news story in their patch, which means we are losing a valuable historic resource.

Even though many newspapers have online editions, the diminishing journalism resource means the news industry is relying too much on the public to fill the editorial space on their websites.

Everyone thinks they can tell a story; but this is simply not true.

Being a journalist requires an inquisitive mind that questions everything, as well as the ability to write in a way that anyone – aged nine to 90 – can understand. We are trained to tell a story succinctly, bring it to life, and make the reader feel an emotion; but perhaps, even more importantly, we also know how to be objective and unbiased to ensure we cover both sides of a story fairly. It doesn’t matter if the story is printed online or in a paper, is a Tweet, Facebook post of Instagram image, the above is still imperative.

A question of balance

Many people have an agenda and can represent their version of a story from their own prejudice.

In the town I live in, a teenage boy was recently stabbed in a local park – the first tweet claimed the emergency service were treating an elderly gentleman who had had a heart attack, then a few minutes later it became a fight between rival gangs which had left six people fighting for their lives. In reality, there was one victim who, although badly shaken, had not suffered life threatening injuries.

Our need for instant information means we do not care about getting the right information.

In the past when an incident such as this had happened, news reporters would have been on the scene, interviewed eye-witnesses and spoken to the emergency services to get a full picture of what had happened. Although the story may not have been published quickly, it would have been correct and would have prevented such wild accusations being made.

Part of being a journalist too is to censor some information – in particular, images – which may be too graphic or upsetting.

For example, in my interview to be a newspaper editor I was asked if I would publish a photograph of a young girl’s shoe in the middle of the road after she had been knocked over by a car. I said, I would. I was then asked if I would show the same image in a pool of blood, in this scenario, I said no. As in my mind it would be too shocking and upsetting and would not add anything to the story.

Yet, the public, when they share images from the scenes of breaking news online seem to have no such filter. When the Tunisia beach shootings happened, images of bodies lying on the sand were readily seen and shared across Twitter, the same of the more recent terror attack in Barcelona which showed the body of a small child lying in Las Rambla.

No one needs to see this sort of image, our imagination is enough – we can all picture the scenes of devastation such incidents cause – without actually seeing such horrific pictures.

There have been example too, where people have been so intent on capturing these images on their phones they actually walk past victims in need of help.

Right and wrong

News reporters are also trained in newspaper law – courtesy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists – we know what we can and can’t report on, when covering a crime, to ensure a potential court case is not prejudiced.

Too many times I have seen examples where people have tweeted there has been a robbery, when in fact it is a burglary. These are two very different crimes and have very different sentences– a robbery means someone has used or threatened to use violence to steal; a burglary simply means an item has been stolen.

Or they will say someone has caused a car accident, when, until proven otherwise, the legally correct way to word this is to write they have been involved in a collision. To the untrained brain, all this may seem irrelevant, but believe me, you need to get this right if you want to avoid a potential costly lawsuit.

As if the above wasn’t bad enough, we should also not underestimate the value of good grammar.

Call me old fashioned, as I know this may not seem important to many - after all as long as you get the crux of the matter does it really matter if a few of the words are misspelt or there are a few commas are missing? - well, yes, it does. It does matter, a lot actually.

For a starter, good grammar gives the reader confidence that the story comes from a reliable and professional source, and therefore makes them trust the information within it, but we should also not forget that bad grammar can change the meaning of a sentence or article and mislead a reader.

In my opinion, citizen journalism has done very little, other than satisfy our need for instant gratification and devalue a much-loved and needed profession. Our desire to know something now, with little appreciation of really understanding the How, Why, Where, When. It is not journalism; it is just people passing on information to others without qualifying the facts.

I believe that storytelling is as relevant today as it has ever been. The platforms may have changed, but the delivery should be the same.

Julia Ogden is content and PR director at Zazzle Media