“Citizen journalism” has become a standard part of the way we gather and report news. But that was not always so.
Once upon a time, reporters felt pretty good about themselves when they would take time for a telephone call from a reader (or viewer) to listen to a “tip.” Occasionally, if they were feeling particularly generous, reporters would break away from planned stories and editor assignments to actually pursue the reader’s concern. And that was about the extent of “reader interaction” and citizen participation in the newsroom.
These days no big story can be covered without citizen involvement.
And though the ingredient that citizens contribute is not always, technically, journalism, it is valuable in helping to get to the truth of a story and ensuring the thoroughness with which issues and events are covered.
Citizen journalism takes many forms. Some of it is quite casual: Twitter, Facebook or YouTube postings chronicling a breaking or ongoing news event that are picked up by reporters and worked into articles.
Citizens are relied on so much that the holy grail of citizen journalism is a functioning Web tool to allow readers to submit pitches, sign up for assignments, follow other assignments and even submit written reports or photographs through a single online portal, making it easier for editors to track and organize reader submissions.
Why all the interest by journalists in the voices of ordinary citizens?
Multiple reasons. At the most basic, no news organization can be everywhere at all times – whether the location is Nosara, Samara, Nicoya, or anywhere else in Costa Rica. The news has also gotten much more complicated, and with so many sources of information now available, news organizations are being asked to do much more – and often with much fewer resources.
Another basic reason: because they can. With the advent of the Internet and the widespread use of e-mail and other digital communication tools, readers can “publish” for the world – literally – and reporters can access those “publications” right at their own desks.
But there is a third and major reason for the growth of citizen journalism: because ordinary citizens are often the best sources for the best information. If you have witnessed a crime or merely watched the view in your neighborhood change, you automatically know a lot more about the issue than the reporter who is assigned to that story. And we need you if our goal is an honest, thorough and, yes, interesting, report.
That makes citizen journalism a whole lot of work for professional journalists.
But only the most retroactive or narrow-minded organizations would use that as an excuse to dismiss the contributions of readers and other citizens. As professionals, our goal remains “truth.” And these days citizens are a path to the truth that cannot be ignored. We have also learned that ordinary citizens are a rich source of information, content, ideas and often a beautiful source of writing, video or photography.
Is it always journalism?
No. But it is real life, and that is the most compelling element that news organizations can add to their reports these days. And, citizens, we thank you for it.
Written by Mary Ann Giordano, Deputy Editor for The New York Times.
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