Reporting the news isn’t just for journalists anymore. The closing of hundreds of newspapers nationwide has left a vacuum in news coverage that everyday people are stepping up to fill. The result is a diverse collection of web sites and blogs that serve as an information hub for many communities.
The term for this trend is citizen journalism, and it is a major component of “hyperlocal” news coverage. What was once just a job for journalists employed by a news agency has made its way into the hands of individuals who do not have a formal journalism background. Many individuals are contributing through writing stories, uploading photos, or submitting other community events. This phenomenon has even been picked up on by major media outlets: CNN’s iReport being a prime example. Users are especially encouraged to use their mobile devices for sending in content to CNN and other major media companies.
There are many ways this trend has improved local news coverage. For example, many of the hyperlocal sites that use citizen journalists cover small events that are no longer in the mainstream press. Also, citizen-journalists are able to cover more events and profile a larger diversity of happenings because there are just not enough reporters to go around – especially with all the layoffs and newspaper closures during the last year. With so many smart phones out there many people are perfectly equipped to share content. News sites are making wider use of user-generated content, especially during natural disasters or other breaking news events.
There are some compromises to this shift in coverage. While news organizations generally take aims to ensure there are minimal conflicts of interests between their writers and subjects, no such boundaries or rules exist for citizen journalists. Readers don’t know for sure how much fact checking the citizen journalist did, or if there if there is some sort of cozy relationship between source and reporter. The bottom line is that regular citizens typically did not receive any formal journalistic training – so some of the details and news copy might be a bit rough.
In the past many people looked at their news with a Walter Cronkite-type of believability – if he said it then it must be true. Unfortunately for readers of hyperlocal sites this just isn’t the case. There are thousands of sources daily that contribute to hyperlocal sites, and it is difficult off-hand to verify if the information is correct. It is the dilemma with user-generated content. It creates a great sense of community among the users, but it means much of the information may be suspect. While overall most of the content that appears at such sites is probably pretty accurate, as a reader it would definitely be worth looking at it with a critical eye.
Despite these concerns the trend toward more citizen journalism is growing. More and more news sites are accepting amateur content, and other sites are building their entire platform around it. The question has become not whether citizen journalism should exist, but how sites should be using it to enhance some elements of news coverage.