Exploring the ‘me’ in media

“Had a lovely day on the beach today. Weather has been nice and hot. There was an earthquake this morning at 6.20 but we’re both OK. Also there was a scrub fire next to the hotel, which they put out by dropping water from planes. Got some good video coverage on my phone. I will e-mail you the pics when I get home- I should have been a journalist.”

As a trainee journalist, should I celebrate my Dad’s ability to use his Nokia N95 to its full potential, or should I feel threatened? He joked at the end of his text message: “I should have been a journalist.” But the truth is: he is a journalist- a citizen journalist.

By being at certain place at a certain time and armed with the necessary equipment (in my Dad’s case a mobile phone and an internet connection), anybody can be a citizen journalist. Although it has been around for a long time in the form of voxpops, phone ins and letters to editors, web 2.0 has given millions of people a platform to publish their story on blogs, user generated content sites or in response to other articles. News companies are now seeing the huge potential user generated content has and they are encouraging consumers to be part of the conversation. The BBC and CNN are just two companies that have user generated areas of their websites, for example BBC Have Your Say and CNN iReport.

There are certainly many people who would criticise the information Dad gathered while he was on holiday partly because many journalists feel threatened by user generated content. They also feel it is almost impossible to verify and they have reservations about its reliability. To an extent, I can see why they are worried. After a false claim that Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack by a citizen journalist, Apple’s stock price dropped. Further inaccuracies were found when a member of the public sent in an excellent photo of the New Forest fire…which turned out to be a photo taken in Montana.

Furthermore, Dad hasn’t got any knowledge of the professional legal and ethical guidelines, which journalists must adhere to. The problem with citizen journalism is that there are few people monitoring the content, which is why we were able to see the execution of Saddam Hussein on the net, in all its gorey details. But in a democracy should there be any limitations to what people can print or broadcast? A few years ago, I worked in France for a year where I made good friends with a French soldier who had spent time in Chad. After seeing one of his photographs of a dead woman with her breast amputated lying at the side of the road, it occurred to me that some things would be too upsetting for the public to see.

Despite the criticism of citizen journalism, it is undeniable that they have proven their worth over the last couple of years. It would be impossible for ‘professional’ journalists to be everywhere, waiting for the next big story to break therefore citizen journalists can play a crucial role providing footage when it isn’t possible for a cameraman to be there. If people didn’t take the initiative to take out their mobile phone or video camera and hit record, we wouldn’t have seen the exclusive footage from the 2005 London bombings, Indian Ocean tsunami or Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 on our TV screens.

Why do we even need people like my Dad, or these other members of the public who got snap happy when experiencing major news events? Well in theory, we don’t because journalists have always managed to get news on their own… eventually. But with more people getting web savvy, “professional” and citizen journalists can work together to make the story less cold. An opinion or clip of footage from a member of the public who is close to that particular issue or event, not only makes the news more personal and more real, but it also makes it more credible. After all, news is about people.

Finally, I believe my Dad or any other citizen journalist is helping me to improve the quality of the articles I write. User generated content means it is no longer possible, in Rupert Murdoch’s words, for a journalist to be a God-like figure from above telling people what is important. People don’t want to be controlled by the media. They want to be part of the news so the fact that anyone is now free to produce their own content, interact and debate with the reporter, even disagree with the author can only be a good thing because it will make journalists produce more accurate copy.

Dan Gillmor said: “Tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now.”

Therefore as a future journalist, rather than feeling threatened by citizen journalists, we need to work with them to make news more engaging and accurate.

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