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The use of citizen journalism by traditional media

Nicola Bruno writes:

'To be social or not to be social?' According to Nic Newman, RISJ Visiting Fellow and a digital media consultant, that is no longer the question for mainstream media outlets facing the transition to the digital landscape.

During his seminar at the RISJ on 'The use of citizen journalism by traditional media', Nic Newman explained to the audience that in the last two years all media organizations have embraced user-generated and social media tools.

After watching with suspicion (and sometimes also with haughtiness) the rise of citizen journalism, mainstream media outlets have become more and more aware that digital networks are the main place where people get the news and discuss them. Social networking sites like Facebook are now used in the UK by 49% of all Internet users, up from 17% in people in 2007, and there are an increasing number of users who have become friendly with blogs, Twitter, You Tube and other social media tools.

It's not only a matter of finding new distribution channels. Online social tools have revealed their disruptive power at all levels of the newsworthiness cycle (investigation, writing, commenting) and on different scales (global, national and local). From the 2008 Mumbai attack to the Sichuan Earthquake in China, through the plane crashed in Hudson river in New York, the first breaking news have been provided by citizens with a smartphone and a mobile connection.

One of the groundbreaking moments of this trend was the grass-root coverage of the 2009 Iranian protests: "The mainstream media organisations were muzzled, unable to cover demonstrations. It was user generated footage shot on mobile phones and distributed via social networks like You Tube and Facebook which has enabled things to be seen that would have hitherto been unseen", said Nic Newman.

Citizens are not only good at breaking the news, they can also help journalists in their investigative efforts, as seen during the Guardian coverage of Ian Tomlinson's death in London during the G20 protests: "The video emerged from footage shot on the phone of a New York banker. It actually took a few days for the footage to come out and what was interesting was the way in which a lot of traditional investigative work by The Guardian journalist Paul Lewis combined with the actual evidence from multiple sources including this crucial video, which showed that Tomlinson's death was no accident", said Nic Newman.

For all these reasons, these are the questions traditional media outlets are now trying to answer:

  1. How to tell better stories to the readers with the help of user-submitted content?
  2. How to build a better relationship with the readers, involving them in the news-making process?
  3. How to use the digital networks as more powerful channels of distribution for the content?

The BBC has faced these challenges by creating a UGC Hub, where a staff of 23 people ask readers and viewers to submit original content during crisis events and then processes it. The Guardian is experimenting with the crowd-sourcing model, as seen during the last MPs expenses scandal, when the newspaper asked readers to review a large amount of official documents published online, underlying the most interesting stories.

Different participation tools (personalized websites, social-network functionalities, and a citizen journalism section) have been implemented by The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times and CNN (a more detailed review can be found in Nic Newman working paper 'The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism', published last year by RISJ).

"A few years ago it was a real battle going on between new media and old media, people arguing that walls should come tumbling down and journalism needed re-inventing. But I think now there is the recognition that citizen journalism doesn't replace journalist, they work together", says Newman.

We are only at the beginning of the normalization of users' participation in the newsrooms and a lot of questions arise: If citizens are more and more the first to break the big news, do we still need journalists? What about verifying and double-checking the user-generated content? Can a reporter trust in a tweet or a YouTube video uploaded by anonymous users?

Even if traditional journalism will be compelled to abdicate some of its traditional functions (as for example: breaking the news), Nic Newman is convinced that there will always be the need for professionals monitoring, selecting and validating the big amount of information flowing on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. The gates of newsworthiness are now open to everybody. But we still need objective and trusted gatekeepers, says Newman.