Will citizen journalism save us?
It’s no secret that traditional media is seen as having failed to maintain the trust of audiences in recent years. That has meant that many have been tuning away and in the direction of more independent sources—and increasingly toward what has been dubbed ‘citizen journalism,’ which is conducted by members of the public, rather than professional journalists.
Many see it as the answer to mainstream journalism—a fix to the problems that plague it and a more trustworthy resource. But is it?
What I do love about citizen journalism is the opportunity for many more voices to be public and build reputations based on the audience’s appreciation of them, rather than some credential. But, in particular, it allows local voices to tells stories about their communities in ways that might not often be possible for a journalist in a newsroom far, far away. We’ve also seen many people with subject matter expertise in areas such as politics, technology, or science and some talent towards language take on a journalist approach in disseminating information. That’s powerful because their knowledge tends to be far superior than that of a generalist journalist. I find that kind of citizen journalism to be invaluable, and those who garner the biggest audience tend to be capable storytellers.
But in the rush to embrace podcasters, bloggers, tweeters, Spaces hosts, youtubers, and Substackers as the ultimate solution—just because they are not the mainstream—I think many people have gotten overzealous.
Yes, in some cases citizen journalism can be a valuable resource or a forum for discussion and it is often a freer one, less restricted by corporate interests. But it is certainly just as prone to things like bias or audience capture. It can be incredibly unreliable. There’s no guarantee of any fact-checking process before information is posted and there is often a financial incentive to disseminate it as quickly as possible—beating anyone else, to please the algorithm gods. Citizen journalists often do not have large resources, especially as they are building their platforms, and so have less ability to verify certain information or more limited access to tools. They also will often struggle to get the same caliber of guests or experts as their more ‘mainstream’ counterparts, unless, perhaps, you’re Joe Rogan. Furthermore, many ‘citizen journalism’ platforms tend to grow because they represent a particular point of view outside of the mainstream, so rather than being neutral (something that often causes people to turn away from the MSM as well), they just represent a point of view that’s different. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is something to be aware of.
But what is a journalist anyways?
Personally, I did go through a somewhat conventional journalism path in some ways, but not entirely. And not all journalists follow the same footprints. I got my degree in Communications. I can’t say that I learned too many relevant skills to the work of a journalist, but I was exposed to some interesting ideas, and there were a few classes that had some direct impact on my work, namely: research skills and statistics. The latter in particular is something that I think anyone doing the work of journalism should be very familiar with.
Most of what I learned about journalism though, I learned by doing. But I didn’t learn it alone. I had some great editors along the way, who challenged me and made my work better. I grew over time. That process is necessary. A citizen journalist doesn’t get its benefits. Doesn’t mean they can’t still learn and grow, but the lessons have to somehow be learned on their own and that’s far more difficult without that on-the-job training.
Before someone can really call themselves a decent journalist, there are certain skills that they need master. Those include such things as research skills, fact-checking, interview techniques, structure, understanding what needs to be included and what doesn’t, as well as asking the right questions within their work. And of course, their work must be engaging and well-written. Some things are intuitive. Some are learned.
In the age of the internet, anyone can become a journalist. In the early days, I even had my own web-based publication that would get up to 600,000 readers a month. But is anyone a good, reliable source? Not necessarily.
Citizen journalism can be a powerful tool for bringing attention to important issues, but too many do it irresponsibly, spreading incomplete or false narratives as fact, providing inaccurate reporting from unverified sources, and writing with just as much—if not more—bias as the mainstream media that they claim to rebel against. And as they amass more and more loyal fans, this can have some significant consequences. Some of these citizen journalists have even been found to have links to organizations and governments, as well as funding from them—so they aren’t even as independent as they might like to appear.
So while I do think that citizen journalism is a powerful force that’s here to stay and can provide a broader perspective to what’s going on in our world—particularly when it comes to contextualizing what’s happening on the ground from eye-witnesses, providing more diversity of viewpoints, covering local issues, and allowing more expert commentary—I do not think that it will replace traditional journalism entirely.
We need both.
And just because mainstream journalism has been broken, doesn’t mean that we need to throw it away entirely. We need to fix it, hold its feet to the fire, and create new entities that do things better.
So, no, citizen journalism will not save us. But it gives us a broader voice.
What are your thoughts? Do you trust citizen journalism more than traditional journalism? Who do you follow? Leave your comments below.
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Who am I? I’m a writer with an overactive imagination and a random mind. Outside of Substack, you’ll find my work in publications such as Newsweek, WIRED, Variety, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire, Playboy, Mashable, CNN Travel, The Independent, and many others.