As a trained journalist, the term citizen journalism should give me pause, especially given the recent presidential election during which facts were often replaced by provocative commentary. Yet, with fewer journalists reporting less news, citizens in rural and suburban communities cannot rely on 24-hour pseudo news to fill the void left by the closures/mergers of local media outlets. Even hyperlocal online news outlets like Patch, which seemed so promising a few years ago, have declined into a curation of press releases and national news links.
Today, an average citizen armed with Twitter and an iPhone often files the first report when news breaks. Personally, in 2014, I watched the Ferguson protests unfold via lifestream overnight from a citizen journalist who tweeted a link to his live video feed. The Occupy Wall Street movement put a spotlight on citizen journalism, with much of the movement’s early coverage coming directly from the protesters themselves on social media. Soon, outlets like The San Francisco Chronicle began offering tip sheets to help citizen journalists cover the protests. And, despite their press credentials, several professional journalists were arrested alongside citizen journalists, causing confusion among the law enforcement community.
Legally, the rights of citizen journalists are protected under the First Amendment. In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in Glik v. Cunniffe et al that a private citizen’s right to videotape police officers performing their duties in a public space is “unambiguously” protected by the First Amendment. In writing for the majority, Judge Kermit Lipez defended citizen journalism, stating that the First Amendment “encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information.” The opinion goes on to specifically state that “these rights are not restricted to so-called ‘professional journalists.'”
Of course, citizen journalism need checks and balances. Fact-checking is a critical and unappreciated aspect of reporting. Professional journalists will always be the most qualified people to accurately break and report the news. But there’s a way for all journalism to thrive. According to Cision’s 2016 State of the Media report, more than 70% of journalists cite using social media to build relationships and cultivate sources. I encourage journalists, news outlets and educators to take this relationship building to the next level. Provide citizen journalists with the tools of the trade and help them develop basic journalist skills. Media is changing. Let’s work together to make the change a positive one.