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A Decade Later: The Challenges of Citizen Journalism Persist

During an address in 1881 to the Connecticut Evening Dinner Club, Mark Twain, a.k.a Samuel Langhorne Clemens, made this remark regarding journalism:
"If you don’t want to work, become a reporter. That awful power, the public opinion of the nation, was created by a horde of self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditch digging and shoemaking and fetched up journalism on their way to the poorhouse."

It's been well over a decade since the emergence of the so-called blogosphere and Mr. Clemens' comments are just as relevant more than a century later.  With the addition of realtime microblogging and the ubiquitous 'comments section' that contaminates online content on a widespread basis, the notion of journalism and hence citizen journalism are under significant pressure.

The concept of citizen journalism is based upon public citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information. Citizen journalism functions outside mainstream media institutions as the audience employs social media to inform one another directly.

Traditionally, journalism ethics and standards comprise principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.  However, these principles unfortunately do not uniformly apply to what constitutes citizen journalism.

As detailed below, there are significant challenges to what would constitute valid or high quality citizen journalism: Content, Passion, Capability, Credibility, Accountability, Compensation, and Leadership. Not all journalism and especially not all citizen journalism is created equal, and answering these challenges is what separates the good from the bad and the ugly.


Although this may seem obvious, the proper selection, timing and staging of content is a delicate and complicated task. It is not random. Participatory journalism is still presumably journalism, and requires discipline of vision like any other worthwhile endeavor. Stimulus / response microblogging is not a substitute for thoughtful analysis of information.  And it never will be.  Neither are three paragraph 'short form' blog posts that act as link-bait for online advertising page views.


The fuel which drives any great work is passion for something, someone, some place, etc. Without this vital ingredient, inane and banal ramblings masquerade for the genuine article. It is precisely this form of passionless journalism which drives audiences away from mainstream media, in search of 'something real.' Comment trolls are especially adept at exploiting passion to elicit reaction and attention but this not a substitute for a lack of journalistic passion for the original subject matter.


We all have different skills, and not everyone is equally gifted in the art of expression. The challenge is to enable those who desire a voice but can’t quite sing yet. This requires a drive to achieve and a submission to the discipline required to get there on the part of the would-be citizen journalist. In other words, one must become a “humble student” in order to truly learn anything of value, especially how to be a great journalist.


Everyone has an opinion, sometimes more than one. However, not everyone has the depth of background and experience to offer valuable opinions which can add substance to a topic of discussion. Many popular journalists are cast, for better or worse, into a “pundit” role over the course of their years in covering specific topics with some depth. This doesn’t mean we should ignore fresh new insights, but if those insights waste the audience’s time by not providing value, then the whole effort is on shaky ground.


Screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is ok if there really IS a fire. However, anonymous “bomb throwers” who engage in so-called ‘yellow journalism’ destroy the overall integrity of a publication, not to mention open it up for libel and slander. Defamation is not a valid form of promotion, and accountability of reporting and reporters holds this problem in check, although it doesn’t completely eliminate the more subtler forms.


In most societies, “Time is Money” and Citizen Journalists, even fledgling ones, need to be properly compensated for their efforts if those efforts are to continue. Hobbies are just that: hobbies. In order to break through to a higher level of quality, there needs to be a fair system of compensation or the term “Citizen Journalist” will become synonymous with “Unemployed Journalist.”


The role of the editor should be emphasized here. Without editorial direction, guidance and oversight, it is hard to deliver a quality publication. Even high school yearbooks have editors, and online publications are no different. There are various editorial styles and orientations, but they all share common journalistic ethics which define and shape the publication. Without this editorial leadership, whether it is in the form of an editor-in-chief or an editorial staff, the publication in question may never see its second issue. Perhaps this is just editorial Darwinism at work.


Great journalism is hard and sloppy journalism isn’t really journalism at all. Citizen journalism remains challenging more than a decade after its initial emergence. And yet, no one can argue with the social impact citizen journalism has made during this time, even with all its flaws. Perhaps this impact simply stems from human communication which is the basis of all media, new and old. Perhaps recent technical advances in mobile online publishing and distribution catalyzes the latent power of human communication. Still, the challenges described above will remain as differentiators between great citizen journalism and online dreck.

In the third quarter of 2012, the number of smartphones globally surpassed one billion with the next billion projected to occur in 2015. These devices are enabling new mechanisms for the distribution of modern journalism and re-defining the experience of "news consumption."

Using the next generation of intelligent mobile applications, it is now possible to experience and consume an extremely wide variety of journalism from both traditional professionals and from citizen journalists, on a near equal footing.

For an example of such an application, please see Media Mob TV for iPhone. Enjoy!