Is there a place for citizen journalism outside of breaking news?

As we’ve gone through this semester looking at television and its use of citizen journalism, I’ve learned a lot and I hope all you readers have as well! There’s a lot to talk about, as there are so many outlets in which citizen journalism can be used. All of this discussion seems to lead to one final question:

Is there a place for citizen journalism outside of breaking news?

My answer for this is: yes. But let me explain why.

Quite simply, I just think incorporating user-generated content is the direction in which journalism as a whole is headed. No matter the medium, it seems like it’s happening across the world of journalism. It creates engagement between viewers (or readers) and the media outlets. It creates conversation.

Technology and social media really have changed everything. Nowadays, news can come from anyone, at any time, from any corner of the world. This was never, ever possible 10,20,30 years ago. It’s hard to keep up with technology, because it is ever evolving, and it seems we, as citizens, can do more every single day. Citizen journalism feeds off of this. It is made possible by our everyday tools. It takes time to tell a story, and to tell it right.

People will always have opinions—what’s newsworthy? What isn’t newsworthy? It’s virtually impossible to get everyone to agree on everything. This is where citizen journalism can step in and fill that void. Citizens are walking around now with the ability to have their voices heard. I think any more, news stations and other media outlets are being forced to adapt to these changes. If they don’t, readers and viewers are left at stake.

As we’ve discussed before, using user-generated content is not a perfect system. There will be flaws, misconceptions, misunderstandings, mistakes, etc. But is that the end of the world? The best media outlets can do is have guidelines in place, to try and eliminate these potential problems. However, as we all know, not every media outlet operates the same. Each has different guidelines, expectations, and procedures that may alter whether or not they use user-generated content that is sent to them.

Overall, citizen journalism has a lot of positives outside of breaking news. It gives citizens a voice and the ability to actually help spread the word of different events that are happening in their communities. It gives a personal perspective to news that otherwise may not be told by professional reporters. It’s hard to beat getting the details on a story from people who are there—from people who live in those areas every day.

Citizen journalism can step in and fill a void that is left by professional reporters who are unable to report on everything. Citizen journalism can also be cost effective, because now it’s not uncommon for photographers to be losing their jobs in favor of other employees, freelancers, and citizen journalists who can be trained in the multimedia approach to news.

The bottom line is this: journalism is going to keep changing. With it, how news is gathered, produced, and disseminated to the public is going to change. News outlets are going to be forced to adapt and keep up with the changes, or be left behind. Citizen journalism absolutely has a place outside of just breaking news—we’re seeing it every day.


Citizen Journalism across the world

Citizen journalism in the United States and citizen journalism around the world serve two completely different purposes and accomplish different goals. In the US, we’re lucky enough to have freedom of speech and the ability to publish news (or whatever people consider to be news), whenever we want. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in other countries across the world.

Consider places like North Korea, where television is state-run, and television and radio sets must be registered with the police, and are pre-tuned to government channels and stations. Although this is just one example, it makes it nearly impossible for news to funnel in and out of the country. Egypt has a limited number of television stations, and a few were ordered to cease service as repercussions for a military coup that happened in July 2013.

These may be just a few examples, but certainly opens up a wide opportunity for citizen journalism to step in and fill a big void in the media cycle. During the 2011 Arab Spring, camera phones were the easiest and fastest way to get news out of the Middle East. Started in Tunisia, anti-government protests quickly spread to other Middle Eastern countries. During this conflict, camera phones became the main thoroughfare for news. As noted by The Guardian, Al-Jazeera’s citizen media service had over 1,000 entries a day of happenings during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarack’s removal.

Numbers like that don’t lie. No matter where someone is in the world, they have the ability to tell a story. Especially in places where media is largely restricted, the news that does escape is largely citizen journalist based. “Regular” media is largely banned, especially during uprisings and military missions, to put even stricter control on the already frowned-upon media.

International relations are incredibly important to the United States and our democracy, so keeping tabs on other countries stability is something the government and country monitor closely. This is why, when things happen, like the capture of Saddam Hussein, Occupy Wallstreet, the Arab Spring, and most recently Typhoon Haiyan, dominate the news and social media. People across the world bring issues to light, whether they’re humanitarian, civil, governmental, or other, that we, in the US, would otherwise not know much about.

I believe that everyone has a story to tell. In places of a more oppressed nature, where media isn’t freely available and restrictions are placed on nearly all activities, there could be a desire to get the content out there. Smartphones, social media, and blogs are just a few ways in which citizen journalism has made an impact in overseas diplomacy. There may not be more emphasis on citizen journalism across the world, but it serves a completely different purpose in a lot of cases.

Does journalism need a definition?

With all the changes going on in how people gather, report, and share the news, it’s no wonder the state of journalism is kind of in flux right now. Standards have certainly changed over the years, as have expectations of journalists and journalism. Think about today’s 24-hour news cycle. Back during World War II, that wasn’t even a thought. People had no idea they would one day be able to turn on news at any hour.

Being in this current flux, where information is much more accessible to the general public (not just journalists), it begs the question: does journalism even need a definition anymore?

My personal thoughts—yes… kind of. I think there need to be a few basic, understood principles and tasks specifically defined. But nobody really cares why I think anything.

Despite my opinion, I can absolutely see why some people would say no. They make some valid points! Take for example Jeff Jarvis. He writes that journalism is nothing more than a service whose end is an informed public. I agree with this, and certainly I would say that citizens have more control over their news consumption than ever before.

As Jarvis writes, “Journalism is not content. It is not a noun. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form.”

Some of the longstanding “tasks” of a journalist still apply today—like asking questions, verifying facts, and adding background information to a story. Now, people can help do this like they were never able to before. Journalism has turned into a much more collaborative effort from both professional journalists and citizens (or citizen journalists, whatever you prefer).

Citizen journalists have quickly been able to go around professional journalists and get their content used, which parallels Jarvis’ thoughts. Journalism doesn’t happen in newsrooms anymore. It happens in the cities, streets, and neighborhoods where people live. That’s why journalism is constantly changing, and the definition of it has shifted as well.

Everyone is capable of committing acts of journalism, whether it is print, visual, television, or another medium. No matter what side of the definition fence you sit on, it’s unquestionable that journalism now still heavily relies on (and has access to) citizen journalism, and whether we like it or not, citizen journalism is changing journalism from what we knew before.

The LAX Shooting and the opinions of many

Although the recent shooting at LAX was nothing short of tragic, it provides a good case study example for how social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, aid in the spreading of breaking news. Specifically, the CNN i-Report was all over this shooting, constantly tweeting from @cnnireport.

Let’s go back to the day of the attack- November 1. The first tweet was from CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, but the second was i-Report immediately asking for photos or any information they can get.

Within minutes, there was this:

Look at the photo. Erika’s tweet got a negative reaction because it doesn’t show anything other than airplanes. Twitter users said, what’s the big deal?


Just some of the online reactions to Erika Gammon’s tweet. Photo credit: @cnnireport







One of the most intriguing tweets I saw was this one:

Another interesting aspect to this journalist/source relationship is that @cnnireport actually tags their submitters in tweets whenever possible. They also encourage their followers to follow these people-turned-citizen journalists for a real time update on what was happening at LAX.

Check out this example:

Alone, Tory’s tweet was retweeted 107 times, and favorited 52 times. All of these tweets happened within minutes of each other, providing an up-to-date, “as its happening” view of the situation until more details emerged.

It didn’t seem to matter what the content was, whether it be a quote, or photo, people were interested in just spreading the news as quickly as possible. As judging by Erika’s tweet however, not everything is useful. The race to be first sometimes wins out over the race to be right in the news world, and this photo was one example of that. People like action, emotion, and new information. Anyone can take a photo of an airplane. Famed author and scholar Dan Gillmor, says this race is exactly the problem. In these types of frantic news situations, the best thing to do is sit back and report slowly and accurately, he says. We can analyze for days when all the details come out. Like we are now, after it was just released that the police missed the shooter “by minutes,” as they were asked to do a welfare check on him.

This is one of the downsides of citizen journalism. Human nature is to be competitive, and to provide instant gratification. Part of instant gratification comes from the audience—maybe that’s the world we live in?

That would have been nice to know

As we’ve discussed already, it’s obvious there are other uses for citizen journalism outside of breaking news. The other way we often see user-generated content finding its way into TV newscasts quite often is during a “DIY” segment, or something similar.

I notice this especially when a new product has come out and its kind of taking over the market. Especially then, viewers often see a “Does it really work?” segment or something equal.

In my opinion, these add the most value outside of breaking news. Why? Because it adds a personal perspective. What’s better than seeing if a product works before you spend your money on it?


This is my brother and I, a few years ago on Christmas morning. I’m sure my dad would have loved to know if whatever toy he was about to spend countless hours putting together was actually going to work. Enter: “Does this really work?” segments! Photo credit: Sharon Buchman

These segments aren’t like the your typical “infomercial” that runs at obscure hours of the night on a non-stop rotation. I’m talking about the taped (or live) segments, that reporters go to homes of people to film. These segments are also often filmed at a mall, or another public location when many people are available for testing. There are several news stations that do this well.

One is 19 Action News, in Cleveland, Ohio. They have a consumer investigative reporter who tests different products to see if they hold up to their claims. What’s more, however, is that the news station specifically asks for viewers to write in and submit ideas for what products should be tested. This two-way communication and interaction is one of the biggest benefits of user-generated content. It gets people talking and sharing ideas.

Or consider this news station, which has an entire page dedicated to “Does it really work like that?” More and more, we see reporters who are designated specifically for this type of work. These reporters interact with the community, build the journalist/source relationship, and tell a story, all in a three-minute demonstration.

News, sports, what else?

So, besides news and sports, what else is there that user-generated content can be submitted for? It sounds silly, but weather is the answer! It’s actually really smart if you think about it! If there’s a big storm coming through the area, there is a lot of developing news going on in a short amount of time. The best case of user-generated content being used for weather is at NBC4 Washington, in D.C., where they consistently ask for photos and videos of road closures, snowfall, and any other important breaking details involving a severe weather situation. There are obviously different types of severe weather situations, including heavy rainfall (that may bring on flash flooding), wind damage, and potential hurricane/tornado damage, to name a few. NBC4 Washington covers all of these weather situations well, with the help of user-generated content sent to them by viewers.

To develop interactivity and two-way communication between the station, NBC4 always asks for photos to be sent in of people enjoying the snow on the ground, as way as updates on road conditions, neighborhoods that have (or haven’t) been plowed, power outages, snowfall amounts, downed trees and power lines and other details when a weather situation occurs.

A few examples of the user-generated content that NBC4 Washington uses can be found here:

Remember Snowmageddon, from 2009? My hometown had over 50 inches from a February storm. Photo credit: Eva Buchman

Remember Snowmageddon, from 2009? My hometown had over 50 inches from a February storm. My mom and I were lucky enough to have to shovel the driveway.  Photo credit: Eva Buchman

NBC4 Washington utilizes a special e-mail just for viewers to submit content, This makes it easier for NBC4 to find user-generated content, without searching through social media.

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas– or not

There’s a whole different world to citizen journalism besides “traditional news”—what about the segment that comes towards the end? My favorite: Sports! Now is the perfect time to talk about how citizen journalism plays a gigantic role in the spreading of sports news that might not otherwise make it. Riley Cooper— you remember, the wide receiver for the Eagles who was caught on video shouting a racial slur toward an African-American bodyguard at a Kenny Chesney concert for not letting him backstage? Ordinarily, this may not have ever even been a big deal, because who would have even noticed? But thanks to cell phone video, it was caught on tape by a woman hanging out with Cooper at the concert, and then shopped around to different websites (albeit, for money). Here’s a really in-depth account from Deadspin about how the video even got released. Pretty interesting stuff!

A series of tweets posted to Riley Cooper's account, following his PR nightmare.

A series of tweets posted to Riley Cooper’s account, following his PR nightmare.

Or consider ever-popular target of discussion, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He first broke his arm November 18, and had surgery. He returned to play a little over a month later, on December 30, in the Pats playoff game against the Houston Texans. He broke his arm again in this game in a different spot, again requiring surgery. This time, however, things got interesting. In February, in Las Vegas, while attending a Superbowl party, freshly removed from surgery—a video magically emerged of Gronkowski dancing shirtless and performing a wrestling move (with his surgically repaired arm still in a cast/sling). Of course, this caught fire almost immediately. But why?

People have access to photos and videos literally at their fingertips at any given time. Did Gronkowski and Cooper realize these videos (that they probably didn’t even know were being taped) were going to be released? …Likely not. They’re publically recognizable figures, though, so it’s all the more fascinating for people who are out, and in the same club or at the same concert, as these guys to take photos and videos. Whether it’s ethical or not for these videos to be shopped around to websites and television stations is an entirely different debate, but these two cases are prime examples of how quickly news can spread. These videos almost immediately made their way on to television stations across the country, including CNN, ESPN, and several other nationally known and smaller market stations.

For example—Gronkowski has been in the news ever since then, and there’s now discussions going on about his absence creating tension on the team. Riley Cooper, on the other hand, took a leave of absence from the Eagles to get some counseling after his racial slur gone viral video. Sports, my friends… is an entirely different world. Without user-generated content, these issues would have never been “issues” to begin with, but with both of these instances, I know we all remember ESPN talking about it for days… and days… and days.