In the past decade, with the rise of social media sites, blogs and file-sharing sites like YouTube, citizen journalists on the Internet have begun exploring the ever-expanding broadcasting powers at their disposal. According to the definition set by Dr. Joyce Nip of the Hong Kong Baptist University, citizen journalism is media content created out of a professional context (218). Lauded by its creators as a voice to the voiceless, citizen journalism has goals that are certainly admirable: Dr. Zvi Reich of Ben Gurion University of the Negev notes that citizen journalism’s proponents expect it to grant “ordinary citizens a novel, hands-on role” in news production (739). However, what citizen journalism’s advocates fail to realize is that the medium is too inherently flawed in its current state for it to serve as a serious producer of news.
Citizen journalism has innate shortcomings that create practical limitations on its ambitious goals: specifically, citizens’ lack of adequate credibility limits the effects of the content that they produce. While some would like to say that citizen-generated media is as effective at disseminating information as it purports, studies and research by Dr. Reich, Drs. Seungahn Nah and Deborah S. Chung of the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Eunseong Kim, of Eastern Illinois University, and her colleagues, have shown that citizen journalism websites establish neither credibility nor significant readership. Analysis by journalist and researcher Megan Knight, Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, reveals that citizen journalism received very little airtime from professional journalists even during the 2009 Iranian election protests, a series of events dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” for the supposed amount of citizen-produced social media used by traditional news outlets. The absence of sufficient credibility in citizen journalism creates obstacles for its own objectives, and largely prevents it from having the admirable function that it wants and might seem to have.
The word “citizen,” as well as the phrase “citizen journalism,” can possess multiple meanings and must be clearly understood before engaging in further discussion of citizen journalism. A citizen, in this context, is not used merely in the legal sense, but rather in the social and political sense. Dr. Nip identifies such a citizen as an individual or civilian who acts of their own accord, not in the role of a paid employee (218). In terms of citizen journalism’s literal definition, there is no single, clear description. It is often lumped in with terms like “participatory journalism”; however, these two terms refer to two similar but separate ideas. Citizen journalism, Dr. Nip says, is “where the people are responsible for gathering content, visioning, producing and publishing the news product” (218). It is not participatory journalism, which Dr. Nip defines as content written by amateurs but framed by professionals, nor is it interactive journalism, which she defines as users and professionals (and their respective contents) interacting with each other (217, 216). Thus, citizen journalism is the product of independent citizens who create their own content and choose how they want to publish it. This model includes independent blogs published by writers who are not acting in the role of professionals, as well as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where users have been producing their own content for years in the form of statuses, photos, and more. Also especially prominent are file-sharing sites like YouTube, which has an enormous library of user-generated content. All of the abovementioned sites can be considered outlets of citizen journalism.
Operating in such online outlets, citizen journalists fall short of their ambitious goals mainly because they lack the credibility of professional journalists. Ideally, this new media, produced by people acting as no more than freethinking and independent citizens, is intended to serve as encouragement for the public to take an active role in the news conversation, empowering what once was the passive audience and allowing individuals to be heard (Reich 739). This concept of media “by the people, for the people” is certainly appealing in its parallelism to language of American democracy and even seems like the crescendo to which journalism has been progressing; in fact, Dr. Reich draws a comparison between citizen journalism’s more direct connection with the public and the Protestant Revolution, ignited by Martin Luther’s contention that priests are not needed as intermediaries for worshippers (739). But when people participate in the media with the status of independent citizens instead of with that of professionals, they throw themselves into a vicious cycle. As I will argue, one cannot have the fullest effect of a journalist while completely disassociating himself or herself from the professional media. Having the status of a citizen cannot equate to having the status of a journalist, because citizens do not have enough of what journalists rely on for their work: perceived credibility with their audience.
Credibility is a necessary tool in the utility belt of any journalist, professional or otherwise. Mainstream news media networks spend time and effort building their credibility and use it every day when they report news. Media credibility is integral to journalists because, as disseminators and interpreters of news, they need to maintain a trustworthy relationship with their audience. According to studies referenced by Dr. Eunseong Kim, of Eastern Illinois University, and her colleagues, there is a correlation between an audience’s perception of a medium’s credibility and their consumption of that medium, indicating that an audience will not sit idly by and listen to someone they do not find trustworthy and accountable (179). Without media credibility, a journalist’s entire purpose is null and void. For citizen journalists to fully function, they would need to maintain a certain level of credibility. This credibility is a function of three major attributes of journalists: their authority, their skills, and the resources available to them.
The first factor of media credibility is the journalist’s authority, a crucial component to establishing a listening audience. A person with authority or specialization in a given field does not need to establish credibility because they are presumed to be a trustworthy and knowledgeable source in their field. Indeed, as Dr. Mary Angela Bock of Kutztown University explicitly states, “professional journalists are presumed to have the authority to tell news stories,” but ordinary people must somehow establish authority (646). Dr. Bock quotes Max Weber, who identifies three sources of authority: rational, traditional, and charismatic (641). Rational authority, or authority from law or social sanction, is unavailable to citizens because they work outside of the mainstream media and are therefore not afforded the “presumed authority” of serving as an officially established source of news (Bock 641). Traditional authority, or authority from established social beliefs, is also unavailable to citizens, because citizen journalism contests its audience’s accepted social norm that news comes from professional media outlets (Bock 641). What is left is charismatic authority, or authority based on the actions of an individual (Bock 641).
“Charismatic authority” may sound like a chance for a citizen journalist to earn their stripes, but unfortunately, as evidenced by Dr. Reich’s research, the trend is that charismatic authority is unattainable by non-professionals because they sorely lack the skill needed to achieve it. The journalist’s skill, which is the second factor of media credibility, is a daily necessity for the media’s creation of content. Mainstream media journalists are experienced professionals who have been trained in the job of news reporting; citizens, on the other hand, are typically not. Furthermore, Dr. Reich contends, “most citizen journalists not only lack prior journalistic training, but their learning curve is slower than professionals” (742). He attributes this slow learning curve to the voluntary nature of citizen journalism, to which most contributors can invest limited time, and to the high rates of burnout and turnover associated with volunteer work in citizen journalism. Thus, Dr. Reich posits, a citizen journalist cannot easily pick up “process-oriented practices, like sourcing” (742). These process-oriented skills are necessary even in photojournalism and video journalism, which are often believed to have what Rune Saugmann Andersen of University of Copenhagen calls “inherent credibility” (322). As Andersen explains, this inherent credibility stems from an image’s power to wrest concepts out of the imagination and into a visual reality, reinforcing the journalistic assertion of the “mirror metaphor – the newspaper’s claim that news stories are a disinvested or documentary recount of events and developments out there” (322). Yet, while user-generated photos and videos may be more believable than print reporting, which lacks the visual credibility of an image, they are frequently unusable because of their low quality. In video journalism, Dr. Bock observes, there can often be much “shakiness and unplanned lighting” as well as problems such as out-of-focus or low-quality images, which exist in photojournalism as well (647). These issues of quality are commonly found throughout content created by citizens and can render a piece of reporting useless if the images are too distorted to show the facts of crucial events witnessed by everyday people.
Following authority and skill, the third factor of media credibility consists of the resources at a journalist’s disposal. Resources, such as capital, time and manpower, can be used by the media to build a credible name in the industry and with the public. Major news outlets like CNN, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have full-time employees who are paid with company money to report news, update content and maintain websites. Dr. Reich remarks that citizen journalism outlets, on the other hand, are “generally under-funded threadbare organizations” (742). This lack of funds is because modern citizen journalism groups, most of which operate online, make very little money from advertising. According to Suzanne Kirchhoff, an analyst of industrial organization and business, online ads like those that might be featured on a citizen journalist’s website can sell for a fraction of print ads that make up the majority of a professional news outlet’s cash inflow (43). Ironically, citizen journalist groups’ lack of income is an all but moot point; if the organizations were to pay their contributors, they would sacrifice their claim to the “non-professional” nature of citizen journalism. Furthermore, these organizations tend to have loose organizational structures due to their scattered and preoccupied volunteer contributors, who are difficult to amalgamate into a single functioning news corporation (Reich 742). Also, because citizen journalism relies on volunteers rather than full-time employees, there is never a definitive number of contributing journalists on the street (Reich 742). This uncertainty in a continual stream of content leads to an insufficient division of labor; if a media organization is unable to rely on its contributors, then they cannot assign news beats, and so these contributors are unspecialized in any given area (Reich 742).
If citizen journalism could claim these three factors of credibility – authority, skill, and resources – it could also attain the status of a reliable and usable news source. Unfortunately, as shown, citizen journalism cannot fully claim such credibility and therefore will probably not attract a sufficient audience, as will be demonstrated momentarily. Citizen journalism’s primary goal, as mentioned earlier, is to empower the people and give a voice to the public, but what is a voice with no one to hear it? Thus, if citizen journalism, which has little credibility, cannot draw an audience, it will not accomplish its goal.
Indeed, studies have actually shown that citizen journalism is not perceived as credible and does not draw an audience. Dr. Nip quotes a 2005 Gallup national survey that found that fewer than 15% of Americans read blogs at least a few times a month (Nip 228). This low percentage corresponds to a paper by Dr. Kim and her colleagues, who, in discussing a 2005 study, state that “general Internet users do not find blogs credible, but focusing on those who actually visit blogs raises the number from 12% to 23% saying blogs are credible” (Kim, et al. 171). One could attribute the low readership numbers to citizen journalism’s apparent lack of credibility perceived amongst the general public. Furthermore, Drs. Nah and Chung conducted a survey in Spring 2008 amongst audience members of a community news website to “examine how social trust and media credibility influence the perceived role conceptions of both professional and citizen journalists” (719). According to the responses, media credibility was positively associated with professional journalists and not citizen journalists (Nah and Chung 726). Clearly, these numbers indicate that citizen media is not actually giving its contributors the voice it purports.
Some assert that, although citizen journalism is not perceived as credible by its audience, it can reach the public indirectly through a partnership with professional media outlets. As Dr. Nip explains, citizen journalism’s influence “depends on the mainstream news media taking cues from its content” (227). Such a theory could lead to a beneficial relationship, certainly for citizen journalism. This relationship as it currently exists, however, is very weak. Knight explicitly cites reliability, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness as primary determinants of what a professional journalist will use as a source; professional media are therefore unlikely to pick up the stories of citizen journalists who lack these qualities (62). Coincidentally, Dr. Kim’s study shows that professional journalists and public relations practitioners do not find blogs to be credible and gave them a low rating in factualness and trust (175). Clearly, since professionals do not find blogs to be very factual or trustworthy, they will not use them as sources, presenting another obstacle in the way of citizen journalists seeking to reach their intended audience.
Even during the protests of the 2009 Iranian elections, a series of events where citizen journalism is thought to have reached an audience, Knight’s analysis shows that citizen media was not as influential as originally proclaimed. The media coverage of the 2009 Iranian elections and the ensuing protests was dubbed the “Twitter revolution” in the United Kingdom for the way mainstream media used social media, a form of citizen journalism, in their stories (Knight 61). However, Knight’s analysis of British articles published during the elections and protests shows that only 4% of the sources used by articles in the United Kingdom about the Iranian protests were actually pulled from social media websites (67). Maybe social media users had some voice in the mainstream Western media, but realistically, their voice was nothing more than a muted whisper.
While citizen journalism and the concept of user-generated media is a commendable pursuit, it is not yet in a state to fulfill the goal that it intends to accomplish. There is not enough credibility in the average citizen or even a group of citizens to warrant an audience’s willing ears and to impact an entire people, as admirers of citizen media may suggest. But this hindrance should not be cause to abandon user-generated media altogether; there is room for improvement. I do not want to completely condemn citizen journalism when it has potential. Citizen journalism might indeed play a valuable role someday and might eventually fulfill its intentions of giving citizens a voice in the news conversation on a more equal level with the professional media. However, this goal will not become a reality until citizen journalism organizations have built enough credibility to be taken seriously by professionals and by their audiences.