Citizen journalism promised a lot. It promised that people right in the middle of events, armed only with a smartphone could relate their first-hand experience. They could photograph, video and write about what was going on around them. Governments could not censor reporting since every one was a journalist. Traditional journalists, arriving long after the things they were reporting on had ended, stuck behind police cordons and relying on second-hand information, would be a thing of the past. Citizen journalists could give the world the news, directly, quickly and unfiltered.
That promise has not been fulfilled. At its best it did deliver on those promises. The widespread destruction of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami could not have been captured by traditional journalists. The images captured by locals and tourists of buildings, resorts and lives wiped away provoked a worldwide reaction. Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka were popular destinations and many foreigners related their experience to media at home. They provided videos and photos of what went on and how the tsunami brought extensive devastation. Over $14 billion was donated to aid the humanitarian crisis the tsunami caused.
Angered by a steep rise in the price of fuel, people began protesting the military junta in Myanmar in 2007. The regime had already cracked down on journalists before the protests, but it extended its censorship by attempting to block access to the internet. This attempt was futile as many Burmese were able to circulate photos and videos of the authorities ruthlessly suppressing demonstrators. The US and EU put sanctions in place against the regime and solidarity protests were held around the globe. While the Saffron Revolution, as it came to be known, was defeated by the government, it did push the country toward democratic reforms. These culminated in 2015 with the peaceful transition of power from the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
These two events show the power that citizen journalism can have. But those rare highs stand out from the many lows which sum up much of what citizen journalism is. With no hoops to jump through to become a citizen journalists tourists at a beach resort and monks with smartphones are empowered to share their stories and perspectives. But those hoops are there for a reason. They are the skills and expertise a person has to demonstrate, they are the ethical standards they have to uphold and they are their responsibilities as a reporter that they respect. Citizen journalists are not subject to the scrutiny that an editor offers. They publish quickly, without review, without caring what the consequences of that may be.
At the end of the Boston marathon in 2013 two pressure cooker bombs went off. The terrorists escaped and the internet mob went in search of their identities. Speculation became ‘truth’ to many trying to find the answers on Twitter, Reddit and many blogs scattered over the internet. Rumour and hearsay led people to believe that the bomber was Sunil Tripathi, a university student who had disappeared the previous month. Salah Barhoum was also fingered by internet sleuths. Both men were innocent. But that did not stop people from harassing their families and causing them mental and reputational harm.
Citizen journalists were unshackled from the restrictions placed on their traditional counterparts. They had no editorial oversight or legal consequences to think about. They let their imaginations take hold. Fiction became fact. During the middle of this witch hunt talk radio host Greg Hughes tweeted:
Journalism students take not: tonight, the best reporting was crowdsourced, digital and done by bystanders.
The bungled Boston bombing internet hunt shows why what those students were studying is so important. The investigative skills that help journalists reveal the truth are important. The ethical standards which ensures that journalists publish only what they are sure of are important. The responsibility to the accused and to the audience are important.
Effective journalism requires more than just an internet connection. Someone can pump out content quickly without researching it or concerned with what their actions will mean. Exaggerated claims and clickbait headlines will still drive traffic to these stories. It doesn’t matter if they are correct. Eyeballs on these pages generates just as much, if not more, money than high-quality, responsible reporting. Such competition has led to a decline in digital journalism standards and leaves the door open for fake news.
Alex Warren summed it up best:
Citizen journalism helped to define the new era of amateur internet reporting. It taught us that being involved is more important than being an expert; that being first is more important than being thorough; and that being sharable, is more important than being right.
But the promise of citizen journalism can still be fulfilled. With the right tools and processes people can report on what is going on around them in a responsible way. At Mogul News we want to empower everyone to understand their world. We think that passionate local voices need to be heard. We think that informed experts should have a place to share their knowledge and views. The world is too fast moving and complex for any one newsroom to be able to report on it. The world needs to become a newsroom. Fact checking and editors are vitally important to this. But why do they need to be locked in a room in some office in New York or London?
We are building the technology to connect writers and journalists with editors who will double check their content and make sure it is fit to print. By decentralising the editorial process we can create a world where citizen journalism works. Automation, as I talked about last week, is an important part of this. The result is going to be Mogul News, a trusted platform that empowers everyone to have their voices be heard.