Although citizen journalism is not a new concept, access to technology and social media make it easier for people without formal training to get involved. Instead of expensive cameras and film gear, which for many are out of reach monetarily and in terms of operational skill, people are able to film clips and interviews on phones. “The ubiquity of smartphones around the world has made everyone a potential witness and a potential broadcaster,” writes Andrew Katz for Time Magazine. With constant updates and massive audiences, millions of people use social media as a platform to share stories. The breakneck speed at which people are able to create, share, and consume stories means that citizen journalism has the power to disseminate information faster and more frequently than mainstream, traditional forms of journalism and media.
Raw, first-hand video footage and writing can have a powerful impact on the audiences exposed to them. The benefit of citizen journalism is the coverage of events that the mainstream media is unwilling or unable to report. In some cases, it can change the front-page headlines like the attention garnered by instances of police brutality shared on social media. Pictures and videos of the protests which took place in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown brought a great deal of attention to the cause. In The Guardian, Antonio French, who documented the demonstrations for days in Ferguson, was referred to as “a citizen journalist of the best kind: a credible witness who has helped inform the wider public about a critical matter.” Despite the praise, the validity of this kind of reporting has been questioned.
Citizen journalism has often been pitted against mainstream journalism. David Hazinski, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, said, “Citizen journalism isn’t journalism, it’s gossip.” While I believe this is a blanket statement, the fact remains that citizen journalism rarely goes through the same editing process that most mainstream journalism does. It is important to realize that neither citizen nor mainstream journalism exists in a vacuum. A study reported that 51.8% of journalists use social media to find stories and enhance pre-existing ones. It’s my opinion that there is space for both forms; all people should be empowered to tell their own stories, even if they don’t have a journalism degree.