The rise and fall of citizen journalism
By RUTH EGLASH
New technology makes it easier for anyone to publish breaking news; is role of professional journalist now passé?
With the regional events related to the Arab Spring still unfolding around us,
it is easy to see how new media platforms have the potential to turn pretty much
anyone into a breaking news reporter.
From Egypt to Libya, Bahrain to
Syria, technology allowing video clips to be filmed on smartphones, uploaded in
an instant onto YouTube and spread widely round the Web with social networking
sites such as Facebook and Twitter, has allowed news stories to seep out of even
the most authoritarian regimes and even directly contributed to the demise of
some of them.
Citizen journalists, as they have become known, have not
only allowed outsiders to piece together events as they unfold but have also
supported or in some cases even replaced the professional reportage of
traditional media outlets. This is probably most obvious in countries where
journalists are controlled by the authorities, have been driven out or are
Perhaps one of the best, if most gruesome, examples of
how citizen journalism beat out professional media is the final minutes of
Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s life. Immediately the former dictator
was discovered hiding in a water drain in his hometown of Sirte, one rebel
fighter switched on his iPhone and filmed a brutal revenge attack carried out on
the man once welcomed by world leaders.
The shocking footage was obtained
by wildly popular online newspaper globalpost.com and immediately
broadcast on the web. While globalpost certainly caused uproar by openly
displaying such a graphic clip, the only role the online newspaper’s reporter
played in breaking this story was obtaining it ahead of other news outlets and
uploading it immediately onto the Internet.
As the public is increasingly
gaining its news from all types of online sources, from random videos going
viral on Twitter to static aggregate blogs that draw in news on certain topics,
the question that continues to dog the mainstream media is whether professional
reporters are still really needed at all.
THE GOOD news, according to a
recent study undertaken by professors from Ben- Gurion University of the Negev
and Sapir College, is that professional journalists are not yet
Published in the current edition of academic review
Journalism, the research carried out by Dr. Zvi Reich of BGU’s Department of
Communication Studies and Dr.
Hagar Lahav of Sapir College’s School of
Communication suggests that professional reporters are needed to cover the
unexpected, and even outsiders with certain superior skills cannot outmatch them
in their work.
In their research paper, “Are reporters replaceable?
Literary authors produce a daily newspaper,” Reich and Lahav found that one of
the major values of professional journalists is their ability to react to
unscheduled breaking news.
Journalists, they point out, can immediately
utilize their existing network of contacts and draw on the relationships they
have built up to write a breaking story.
These are assets that outsiders
such as citizen journalist do not possess.
Reporters are also able to
provide both coverage and a certain amount of inherent analysis that strikes at
the heart of the issue and explicates it for their readers, the two professors
The bulk of the groundbreaking study focuses on two issues of
Hebrew daily Haaretz, which were written by well-known authors and poets rather
than professional journalists. Coinciding with Hebrew Book Week in 2009 and
2010, the authors replaced regular reporting staff for one whole day.
analyzing the work of these authors, the two professors noted they suffered from
several weaknesses that professional journalists could have rectified
Among the problems encountered by the authors was a failure to
work according to time line, limitations in reporting the overt, an inability to
pinpoint newsworthiness, unpredictable output and difficulties in covering
large-scale non-scheduled events.
In other words, even though the authors
had more than enough talent and skill to put out a readable newspaper, they had
a hard time meeting journalistic deadlines, reading the subtext of a story and
staying focused and on point.
In short, professional journalists are
still needed to provide a necessary function, concluded Reich and
While this is something that professional reporters have been
trying to tell their editors, managers and the public for a long time, now we
have an actual academic study to back us up.
All that is left is for
professional journalists to harness new media techniques and the technological
skills developed and adopted by citizen journalists. Then we can beat those
bloggers at their own game!