Reporting the news is no longer just for journalists. The closure of hundreds of newspapers across the country has left a gap in news coverage that ordinary people are struggling to fill. The result is a diverse collection of websites and blogs that serve as an information hub for many communities.
The term for this trend is citizen journalism, and it is an important component of “hyperlocal” news coverage. What was once just a job for journalists employed by a news agency has found its way into the hands of people with no formal journalism experience. Many people are contributing by writing stories, uploading photos, or hosting other community events. This phenomenon has even been picked up by the mainstream media: CNN’s iReport is a good example. Users are strongly encouraged to use their mobile devices to submit 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 used by citizen journalists cover small events that are no longer in the mainstream press. In addition, citizen journalists are able to cover more events and profile a greater diversity of events because there simply aren’t enough reporters to go around, especially with all the layoffs and newspaper closures over the last year. With so many smartphones, many people are perfectly equipped to share content. News sites are making more extensive use of user-generated content, especially during natural disasters or other breaking news events.
There are some compromises with this change in coverage. While news organizations generally aim to ensure that there is minimal conflict of interest between their writers and their subjects, no such limits or rules exist for citizen journalists. Readers are not sure how much fact-checking the citizen journalist did, or if there is any kind of intimate relationship between the source and the reporter. The bottom line is that ordinary citizens generally didn’t receive any formal journalistic training, so some of the details and news can be a bit rough.
In the past, many people viewed their news with Walter Cronkite-esque credibility: if he said it, then it must be true. Unfortunately for readers of hyperlocal sites, this is not the case. There are thousands of daily sources contributing to hyperlocal sites, and it is difficult to verify if the information is correct. It’s the dilemma with user-generated content. It creates a great sense of community among users, but it means that much of the information can be suspicious. While, in general, most of the content that appears on such sites is probably quite accurate, as a reader it would definitely be worth taking a critical look at.
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 is not whether citizen journalism should exist, but how sites should use it to improve some elements of news coverage.