Al Jazeera's extensive coverage of the unrest in the Arab world has helped the news agency become something of an authority on issues relating to the region. Riyaad Minty, Al Jazeera's head of social media, recently took part in the Media140 conference in Barcelona. One of the discussed topics, Journalism.co.uk reported, was the network's approach of making use of on-location sources.
A key strategy for Al Jazeera, Minty said, was to get in early and make contact with important bloggers and sources. The idea was to identify key bloggers before protests broke out, so they could help verify information later on and act as citizen reporters.
"The key to getting in early is verifying information before the noise gets out," Minty said. "We had peoples' phone numbers, we could call them up and get things verified by them."
Social media obviously had a significant role to play in keeping in touch with the citizen reporters on the ground, and Al Jazeera's efficient and accomplished ways of using Twitter have already been acknowledged. But utilising new media alone would not have been enough - one has to also know what to do with it. What the use of new media permits is a more integral way of involving regular citizens in the news reporting process.
Al Jazeera is not alone in embracing the resource of citizen journalists, rather online news services are increasingly engaging with their audience, actively encouraging them to take part in news reporting. France 24, for example, features a section on its website called The Observers, in which eyewitnesses can submit text, video and images from current events. Many professional media sites also host blogs in addition to news reporting. There used to be a clear separation between professional and citizen journalism, but the two ways of reporting are now approaching each other in many ways.
Al Jazeera's success would suggest that professional news media can benefit greatly from people on the ground, at the heart of world-changing events. What other ways are there for news agencies to make use of citizen journalists?