Blurring the lines between professional and citizen journalism

Blurring the lines between professional and citizen journalism

Part of our special report on online media, DCMF looks at how modern developments are blurring the lines between professional and citizen journalism
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The world has never been as informed as it is today, nor has there ever been such ready and easy access to the news.  Switching on the television or radio or flicking through a newspaper are no longer the primary methods by which consumers get their news.  Instead, hands are drawn to picking up a telephone, switching on a laptop or checking a tablet, all of which provide access to social media, without a doubt the most significant advance in the recent history of the media.

However, as we become more accustomed to using social media on a daily basis, the emerging associated challenges are becoming increasingly obvious. 

As the saying goes, information is power, but misinformation and the ability to mislead can be equally powerful and potentially disastrous.

Journalists are being forced to ask and answer serious questions about their profession and about the value that social media brings to their work.  However, one of the most significant difficulties posed by the rise in social media is the blurring of the lines between professional journalists, citizen journalists and media activists.

Citizen journalism

One of the most convincing arguments offered by proponents of social media in news gathering is that they provide access to information and people that would otherwise remain unreachable.

The ongoing conflict in Syria is perhaps the most striking example of this in practice.  Citizen journalists continue to document attacks on towns across the country, providing footage to news outlets which simply do not have the access to these areas.

And so, “…this video could not be verified by…” has become a recurring theme in much of the international media coverage of the conflict in Syria.

This is a highly significant disclaimer, although it is questionable whether people actually recognise this fact as they take in the footage.  Without journalistic access, questions of ethics, reliability and other issues arise when covering any event.

As brave as citizen journalists are, their work raises a number of challenges.  They are not professional journalists and they are often supporters of a certain cause, filming action as it unfolds around them.  

As a result, journalists and outlets opting to use material provided by citizen journalists must be wary of promoting or producing propaganda by choosing easy and readily available sources.

Veracity of sources

One of the main problems associated with online media is finding credible, verifiable sources. According to a report by Social Media Todayalmost half (49.1%) of online users have been tricked by false, supposed ‘breaking news.’

Rumours about the deaths of famous celebrities are often made with tongue firmly in cheek, but spreading false information online can have a very serious negative impact.

While false information can result from harmless mistakes, it can also be a dangerous tool to be abused, meaning that verifying the accuracy of any information is of the utmost importance. 

People in conflict zones continue to use social media for a wide variety of reasons, whether for reporting the situation on the ground to the outside world or for gathering people for demonstrations, meetings or military operations.

'News,' photographs and video footage can be used for any of these means, and so it is essential that this kind of information is verified before it can be acted upon.

And so professionals using citizen journalists as sources must ensure that they check the truth of their claims at all times.  This is by no means a new phenomena; the difference is that potentially false information is much more readily available nowadays, and easy, quick access can provide serious temptation to cut journalistic corners.

Social media in the Arab world

With the historical changes taking place throughout the Arab world, the role of social media has been one of the most highly debated topics of conversation in the region.  Some have argued that online media played a major part in instigating the revolutions which have brought about the shifts in power, while others have downplayed their significance.  However, there can be no doubt that online media and citizen journalism have witnessed serious developments during the course of the Arab Spring.

Veteran journalist and media expert Magda Abu-Fadil highlighted the delicate balancing act that these changes have brought about in an interview with DCMF in 2012.

“It is thanks to citizen journalism that we have access to information that we may otherwise not have been able to obtain – if it weren’t for citizen journalists then quite often we would not know the truth.  It is a vital part of the entire journalistic scene, but it must be balanced.”

“Too often we see blogs and other reports which are based on nothing more than rumour.”

Media expert Yasser Abdul Aziz also shared his concerns about the implications of the rise of online media when DCMF spoke to him in December, 2012:

“Social media is very important and it can be used for introducing very good changes.”

“It allows us to be more open, and lets us learn more about the world around us – but it can also be used to misinform and mislead people.

“There is a lot of junk out there, and people need to be careful. I hope that we might see more self-regulation to ensure that people do not use social media to misinform others and work as propaganda.”

These concerns are particularly relevant in the Arab world with the prevalence of social media as a political tool, but they also apply to the rest of the world, where the definition of what exactly constitutes journalism is becoming less clear cut as a result.

Reports of the death of journalism are greatly exaggerated

There is still a difference between the ‘news’ which appears on your Twitter feed every day, and the news being reported by major organisations around the world, and that boils down to the value added by professional journalism.

Journalism is not a mere reflection of a situation or a transmission of information.  Journalism requires a level of analysis and expertise that is impossible to encapsulate in 140 characters of a Tweet or a Facebook status update.

That is not to say that there is not a link between the two, indeed the connection between journalism and social media is one which will continue to strengthen and develop in the long term.

But it does not mean that journalism, the profession of gathering, analysing and explaining information, will not continue.  In other words, while the winds of change are certainly sweeping through the profession, the rise of social media does not symbolise the death of traditional journalism.

The future for journalism and social media

Many have already begun to make bold proclamations about the future of journalism and the impact of social media.  However the reality of the situation is that this is a new and exciting terrain, with much yet to be discovered.

While the need to keep their audiences updated on an increasingly regular basis is proving to be a challenge for many journalists, the opportunities afforded by social media and the ability to reach a much wider readership far outweigh this irritation.

What is clear is that journalists will have to embrace social media and online platforms if they intend to maintain relevance and engage with a wider audience in the future.

However there are important and serious problems which need to be kept in mind when exploring online platforms and it is essential that journalists do not become complacent.

If professionals and consumers alike can remain vigilant in their approach towards citizen journalism, and maintain a balanced approach, then rather than fear and trepidation, online media can be viewed with excitement.

The lines between journalism and citizen journalism may be blurring, but there are still defining factors which provide clarity to the distinction between professionals and citizens.  Just as legal definitions and legislation are being forced to recognise the importance of modern forms of media, perhaps the definition of journalism will morph in the future, and begin to account for bloggers and media activists.

But for now, the separation remains and until a code of practice or effective regulation are introduced for online media platforms, rightly so.

Online media are here to stay, but so is the practice of journalism, with the associated levels of professionalism, ethics and objectivity essential to transmitting the truth.

Click here to read other stories from DCMF's special report "Online media and the changing face of journalism."

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