"Everybody is a journalist now".
This phrase has been repeated so many times that it's become a cliché, but that's not to say that a consensus has been reached about what it really means for the news industry. How should news organisations approach material from citizen journalists? Should lines be drawn between professional and citizen media? How can the work of citizen journalists be effectively verified?
These were some of the questions raised at the session titled "Professional and "Citizen" Journalism Working Together after WikiLeaks" at the UNESCO conference on The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World, where several panellists suggested that collaboration between citizen and professional reporters was best model.
The benefits for news organisations using citizen reporting were highlighted by Riyaad Minty, Head of Social Media for Al Jazeera. Often, he said, citizen reporters can send in stories from areas that professional journalists have difficulty accessing, such as Syria, and can report on things that large news outlets fail to cover.
Even outside conflict situations, ordinary citizens can often file stories with great social relevance. Pierre Haski, co-founder of the French online news site Rue89, described a project at his publication named, Votre porte-monnaie au rayon X, where citizens wrote in describing their exact financial situation. This allowed readers with similar backgrounds and jobs to discuss and compare their earnings, and the series became "a dynamic way of talking about living standards today," said Haski.
However, the discussion of citizen journalism was not all positive. Other panel members were concerned about the way citizen media helped the spread of unverified information. Sankarshan Thakur, Roving Editor at The Telegraph, New Delhi, said that although "citizen journalism is nothing to wish away, even less to ignore," it was important to recognise "loose chat as loose chat, and not as information". There has to be context to stories, he stated, as well as "rigor and fact-checking" that professionals can provide.
Panel moderator Alison Bethel McKenzie, Executive Director at the International Press Institute, spoke more strongly, saying that even though members of the public can be important sources and can be trained to become journalists, the concept of "citizen journalism" was something that makes her "blood pressure rise".
The panel agreed that collaboration between citizen and professional journalists was a key factor in providing good information. Minty emphasised the role that professionals have to play at Al Jazeera in verifying citizen journalist material, which is often inaccurate, or too gruesome to show directly on air. What's more, he stressed that the sheer volume of citizen reporting means that news organisations have to play a role to simply "filter through the noise".
According to Minty, one way to ensure accurate information from citizen journalists is to build strong relationships with trusted sources. "Don't wait until something's trending on Twitter before you report it," Minty advised. At Al Jazeera, he said, "getting in early and building these relationships is absolutely pivotal to what we're done".
Minty also stated that Al Jazeera also uses experts with the right language skills and local knowledge to verify citizen contributions. In the end, he said, only a small proportion of citizen journalism submissions are broadcast by Al Jazeera: of the 16,000 videos that came to the news organisation during 11 days of Egyptian revolution, less than 300 or 400 made it to TV screens.
At Rue89, Haski stated that content was the result of a collaboration between "journalists, experts and citizens". One third of content, he said, comes from a "collaborative relationship with contributors", whose input can be as major as sending in whole texts, or as minor as checking spelling. However, Haski stated that readers felt reassured that professional journalists, who worked within a transparent set of guidelines, had the "final cut".
Lance Guma, a journalist from Zimbabwe who has been exiled for the past ten years, implied that where collaboration is successful, citizen journalism can produce a real social impact, especially in countries where official media is heavily restricted.
Guma works for SW Radio Africa, which reports on Zimbabwe from abroad and relies on contributions from its listeners. Via WikiLeaks, the station received a list of 481 Zimbabwean secret government agents, which it published in a series over six weeks, accompanied by stories about the human rights abuses that the agents had committed. The station received many of these stories thanks to citizen journalist contributions, and, according to Guma, the series made the government agents who had been identified act more carefully. Not only did citizen reporting help shape the project, "it was amazing just how organised and accurate some of the information we received was," he said.
Guma concluded by saying that where citizen and professional journalism combine, the end result can meet the standards of truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity. "The two shouldn't view each other as rivals," he stated.