The rise and fall of citizen journalism

New technology makes it easier for anyone to publish breaking news; is role of professional journalist now passé?

Photographer Marc Sellem, video journalist Hadas Parush  (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Photographer Marc Sellem, video journalist Hadas Parush
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
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 banned outright.
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 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 replaceable.
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 reported.
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.
In analyzing the work of these authors, the two professors noted they suffered from several weaknesses that professional journalists could have rectified easily.
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 Lahav.
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!