The Role of Citizen Journalism in Revolutionizing the News - News and Information Week


Photo courtesy of tyfn’s photostream.

You may not have had the chance to head to South by Southwest this year, but thanks to Twitter, you could practically feel like you’d experienced last week’s musical insanity firsthand. Those following the news feed/social network got live updates every step of the way, from pubs where random musicians showed up to play (or Bill Murray filled in as temporary bartender) to mainstages where headlining acts rampaged their audiences. Even performing musicians provided personal experience from their pages. Rather than reading some recap next week in Rolling Stone, you could find someone at every event on any given day. Plus, you got a 360-degree glimpse of the scene via photos, videos, and immediate commentary from attendants.

Citizen journalism – making everyone the active reporter – has not only altered the way we take in or interpret the news, it’s made a significant impression on the way major outlets cover the news. Often, professionals and established sources turn to bloggers or surf the web for witnesses, seeking those who were there when a random event occurred and pulled out their phone, ready and equipped to document the story. It used to be news teams raced to the site of a natural disaster or murder scene as soon as they were tipped, now someone is already on site, and we look to those people for not only immediate, up close and personal encounters, but presumably objective ones.

A sea of coverage also helps to get a better sense of the story.

Noted writer Chris King on Twitter, “Overwhelming experience of reading Twitter these days is relief I don’t have a journalism job that makes me cover SXSW. Thanks, career gods.”

Muammar Gaddafi’s death last year may have been one of the most recent examples of the extent to which citizen journalism has surpassed other media outlets in the game of news. The video came first, the bloody perishing face of a brutal Libyan dictator struck down amidst mass uprising. Headlines questioned whether it was really him, but in the age of virtual continuity, where there’s smoke, there’s undoubtedly someone documenting it on YouTube. Taken by an unidentified rioter in the crowd, it was evidence used far and wide by the media, from this article in the Daily Beast to broadcast television new sources like Fox. It never used to be we could (or wanted) to see the gritty demise of even the most tyrannical and heinous of world figures; these images were always censored from our eyes, or every so often, one would surface via the National Enquirer. You never knew if it was true though. Now, by contrast, it’s the norm. We may still doubt the tabloids, but we trust our fellow man to bring it to us live.

Such wide open spans for reporting have certainly come with an equivalent amount of scrutiny. Particularly, with Gaddafi’s image, some said too much. Unnecessary exposure. Others felt quite the opposite.

“American people don’t know the reality; they believe what they see on their media, but in fact, the reality is different. U.S. government shows on media that they are killing terrorists, but in fact they are killing innocent people,” wrote one reader on Buzzfeed’s post. “They have captured the minds of their people by false media. They haven’t seen the reality and nor do they want to see the reality.”

And what about Osama Bin Laden? Earlier in 2011, one lone tweeter became a world celebrity when he served as an audio witness to the capture and slaughter of the Al Qaeda lynchpin and his team. Coined the “accidental citizen journalist” by CNN, Sohaib Athar, a 33-year-old IT consultant living in Pakistan near the scene of the crime, heard the blast that would mark the end of one of the most wanted men on the globe.

Athar, on brief vacation and staying nearby, tweeted that night, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”

Following the breaking news, this little known contractor was so inundated with interview requests his computer crashed. Speaking at SXSW last week on his role in the reporting, Athar said he did believe his was a journalist.

“The people who were talking, we were just trying to reverse-engineer what could have happened,” he said on a panel at the interactive series of the event. “The media was not there at the time… We were just trying to see what could have happened because we knew the official story would probably not be the whole truth.”

For the public, the rise of citizen journalism has only wrestled the anarchy inside us, as last year was even dubbed by Time, “Year of the Protest.” Dissenting afar in the streets of Egypt; protesting locally amongst the enclaves of every major urban city, our voice is louder now, and because of citizen journalism, we have one.