“Everyone knows what audience participation means, but when does that translate into journalism?” –J.D. Lasica
At the start of the 21st century, technology was rapidly advancing. For the first time in human history people could connect with each other easily through a machine. Before the industrial revolution, the passing of information would takes days or sometimes weeks. By the new millennium, information could be transmitted all around the world within seconds. These developments made way for a new phenomenon called citizen journalism.
Citizen journalism is a fairly simple concept; all it takes is a wifi connection and a small device that can be used to record or write about an event. It is not to be mistaken with civic journalism, in which locals communicate with their neighbors and discuss topics that interest them. Citizen Journalism is when a group of citizens take an active role in collecting and interpreting news stories. It is a more global process because citizens share these stories through social media, which reaches almost every corner of the world. Many professional journalists do not agree with this new type of information sharing. They assert that because it is a professional discipline, journalists must follow certain rules when reporting. Others maintain that citizen journalism is helpful because citizens are less biased than news outlets and they often witness events firsthand, before anyone can attempt to change the facts. I believe that citizen journalism is a great way to spread news quickly, but we must also be careful because it has caused problems in the past.
The main problem with citizen journalists is that it is not their profession. They report news for free and without fear of consequence if those reports aren’t completely factual. Nowadays, people immediately reach for their phones when a tragic or shocking event is taking place. Rather than alert professionals, we often become bystanders who compete to get the best video. This was evident after the April 15, 2013 bombing of the Boston marathon. The days following the horrific event were completely chaotic. No one knew who the perpetrator(s) was, so citizens who were there tried to figure it out on their own. People from all over began posting pictures with arrows pointing at the people they thought were guilty. The issue was that real news outlets began using these pictures and speculating who the bomber was. At the time I was in my hometown of Medford, which is 10 minutes away from where the bombing occurred. When authorities discovered that the Tsarnaev brothers were responsible, the manhunt began. A shootout in a neighboring town led to the death of the older brother, but the younger of the two, Dzhokhar, had gotten away. Citizen journalists from all over Massachusetts were talking about the search, some claiming that they saw where he was hidden. Some towns, mine included, were even on lockdown. The rampant fear in those days was only worsened by peoples’ need to be the first to catch the bad guy. Thankfully, Tsarnaev was apprehended only a few days after the bombing. The lack of fact-checking caused a lot of unnecessary stress, and it is a prime example of how sometimes citizen journalism is not efficient.
My thoughts on citizen journalism are not completely negative. While I believe that sometimes people record events that should not be captured, I also think that it can be extremely helpful. In the United States, police brutality has gotten increasingly worse in the last few years. With the emergence of smartphones, we can move away from the “he said, she said” narrative and have concrete evidence of what actually occurred. The death of Eric Garner was one that angered many and helped spark the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Garner was going to be arrested on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. When officers approached him, Garner claimed that he was not selling cigarettes and that he was tired of being harassed. Officer Daniel Pantaleo immediately put Garner in a chokehold and proceeded to press his chest down onto the ground. When Garner kept repeating “I can’t breathe” the officers did nothing to help ease his pain. Garner’s cause of death was an unfortunate result of the police’s compression on his chest and neck. Did I mention the NYPD prohibits the use of chokeholds? For the first time, there was solid proof that this was an unjustified and inhumane death. Most people in the United States have seen the video of Garner’s arrest, but I have to warn anyone reading this blog that it is difficult to watch.
While watching someone get choked to death is not something I would normally choose to do, I appreciate the fact that there is finally some evidence of the rampant systemic racism in the United States. I’ve dealt with the prejudices of my classmates my entire life and while that always made me feel alienated, it is nothing compared to what African-Americans have to endure at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them. An NYPD officer I worked with over the summer actually told me that he thought Black Lives Matter is stupid. I hope that one day officers, and regular citizens, are held responsible for their actions against minorities. I believe that citizen journalism can aid in creating social change, but only if it is taken seriously and used for good rather than just for views.