Should the Mainstream Media Be Threatened by Citizen Journalism?

Citizen Journalism (CJ) is a term that inspires both sneering derision by media elites who seek to maintain their authority and status on one hand – and romantic ideas of rebels fighting the power in an information guerrilla war on the other. What is CJ? Where does it fit within the media landscape? Should the Mainstream Media (MSM) treat citizen journalism as a threat? Will the proliferation of User Generated Content and accessibility of the internet as a method of information dissemination spell the end for Professional Journalism (PJ) and the traditional/mainstream media?

Citizen Journalism (CJ) is a term that inspires both sneering derision on one hand – by media elites who seek to maintain their authority and status – and romantic ideas of rebels fighting the power in an information guerrilla war, on the other.

What is CJ? Where does it fit within the media landscape? Should the Mainstream Media (MSM) treat citizen journalism as a threat? Will the proliferation of user-generated content and accessibility of the internet as a method of information-dissemination spell the end for Professional Journalism (PJ) and the traditional/mainstream media?

To answer these questions, a working definition of CJ shall be constructed, contextualising its role within existing power structures as an avenue of speaking truth to power and circumventing elite-dominated editorial gatekeeping.

Secondly, the changing media landscape trends that threaten MSM will be explored. This will lead the discussion towards how media consumers view the roles of CJ and MSM.

Finally, the way in which the profit motive affects the MSM fulfilment of their role as the fourth estate shall be elucidated, to reveal why it is that CJ persists.

Defining Citizen Journalism

CJ exists to fill a niche within the public sphere as a non-commercial means of information-dissemination. While it goes by other names, such as ‘alternative journalism’ and ‘open journalism’, Citizen Journalism persists as the prime term. This is because CJ reflects an “ongoing normative belief that news is connected to a potentially positive form of civic behaviour” (Wall 2015, p. 807).

The civic behaviour of truth-telling complements the public sphere, which El-Nawawy (2013) defines as “the space between civil society and the state” where issues of the general interest are discussed by “private people coming together as a public” (p. 28).

Within this greater context of the public sphere, CJ serves the purpose of “the reporting and dissemination of news and information independently of conventional news institutions by individuals who are not professional journalists” (Munday & Chandler 2016).

While independence from conventional news institutions is a crucial element of defining CJ, the element of non-professional status is contested by other academics, such as Harcup (2014), who defines CJ as “material produced by people who are not employed as journalists but whose writing or other media output appears to contain journalistic elements”.

A professional is simply someone who is paid to do something as a profession; with this understanding, the line between CJ and PJ may seem confusing. Lindner, Connell & Meyer (2015) accept the murky distinction between the two, noting “‘professional journalism’ is both an occupational category and a ‘field of practice’ … professional journalists are people who are paid for engaging in those practices that are seen as legitimate within the field”, having “past or present occupational experience with a news organization that adheres to mainstream journalistic practices” (p. 555).

By this definition, persons doesn’t need bachelor’s degrees in journalism to be professional journalists, they merely need to adopt commonly accepted journalistic practices and work for organisations that pay them to do it.

Does that mean that, once someone is a professional journalist, they cannot perform Citizen Journalism? No. In a study of CJ websites, Lindner, Connell & Meyer (2015) found that “46% of sites included at least one former or current professional journalist as a contributor” (p. 560). Of the hybrid audience surveyed by Rauch (2015, p. 133), more than three quarters of respondents agreed that allowing a wide range of people to express their voices or opinions, encouraging people to get involved in civic life, advocating for a different system of societal values and promoting participation in activism were what signalled that a publication was a CJ outlet. Lack of professional experience doesn’t bear mentioning.

To summarise, while CJ contains journalistic elements and can be performed by individuals who have at one point or another performed PJ, the defining factor of CJ is the freedom to be adversarial to elites and hold truth to account, as it is not driven by the profit motive.

Citizen Journalism in Non-Democratic Contexts

Consequently, the power dynamic between the mainstream media and citizen journalism is crucial to this discussion. While it may be tempting to view the power dynamic within the lens of western liberal democracy, it is important to remember that in authoritarian environments, the act of CJ can be “viewed as a radical threat to the status quo” and can “be significantly more dangerous for its practitioners and punishment can include blockage of their site or account, physical harm, imprisonment, or even death” (Wall 2015, p. 804).

In China, for example, “some professional journalists have been regarded as citizen journalists if they write stories online that would otherwise not be published by traditional media” (Luo & Harrison 2019, p. 74).

As the media is tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the only way to publish stories considered too politically sensitive for publication has been CJ. The CCP state has taken steps to prevent unauthorised journalism, requiring users of social media sites to provide their national IDs and mobile phone numbers to eliminate anonymity. As a result, “individuals are frequently afraid to be targeted and exercise micro self-censorship by choosing to focus on non-political events” (p. 74). Is state censorship not a significant threat to traditional media?

In some cases, non-state actors such as the drug cartels of Mexico can “impose an authoritarian-like hold on the traditional news media, so that citizen journalists seek to create alternative systems”. The widespread murder of journalists who had reported on the cartels has created the need for “Twitter citizen war correspondents who have stepped into roles abandoned by mainstream reporters” (Wall 2015, p. 805).

From a purely economic viewpoint, pulling viewers’ attention away from paid news sources might present a threat to profitability, but in extreme circumstances where journalists’ lives are at risk, less conventional methods of spreading critical information can be invaluable.

Those who would seek to portray CJ as dangerous must have their motives examined, as “accounts of citizen journalism in non-democratic contexts would suggest that its very claim to enact accountability are what makes it such a threat to authoritarians and other oppressors with softer faces who would seek to strangle those inclinations” (Wall 2015, p. 807). Do drug cartels not pose a more significant threat to traditional media than does Citizen Journalism?

Threats to the MSM

The threat to traditional media doesn’t come so much from small-scale CJ outlets, as much as from a decrease in attention spans and increasing demand on viewers’ limited time, from competing media sources.

Print newspaper readership has overall been on the decline in the 16-year period 1999-2016 studied by Thurman & Fletcher (2019), which they attributed to consumers investing “more of their finite attention in other media, such as television and the internet” (p. 543), with younger generations spending significantly less time per day reading news articles and exhibiting the habit of “snacking and scanning” the news.

74% of Australians aged over 14 do still read newspapers (Roy Morgan 2019), and while many newspapers have seen declining readership, with general trust dropping by 6% to 44% in 2019 (Newman et. al. 2019), the percentage of individuals who have high trust in journalists as professionals has climbed in Australia. High or very high ratings of ethics and honesty associated with journalists climbed from 7% in 1988 to 19% in 2016 (Roy Morgan 2016).

The existential threat, as it stands, is consumers’ unwillingness to actually pay for the news they consume. Only 14% of Australians pay for online news (Newman et. al. 2019). Will stamping out CJ shift the willingness of consumers to pay for news? To secure their profitability, the MSM must find a way to overcome ingrained cynicism towards the media establishment and convince consumers that paying for digital news subscriptions is worthwhile.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Lindner (2015, p. 565) posits that “for all that has changed in the internet age, the type of contributors and content that are seen as legitimate are still defined in very traditional ways”. Haller & Holt (2019, p. 1668) found that both left- and right-wing-leaning consumers of CJ use alternative media as “a complement [to], not a replacement” of mainstream media. Wall (2015, p. 800) too, found that “audiences rate professional journalists’ execution of most of the perceived roles for journalists higher, except for the adversary role”, which she reveals is commonly associated with CJs.

Why is the role of the adversary left to the common unpaid citizen to fulfil? That comes down to the newsgathering routines of professional journalists and the gatekeeping role of editors.

The Main Issue Affecting Public Confidence in the MSM

Newsgathering routines inform how journalists gather, verify and publish newsworthy information. While commercial newsrooms rely on the editorial role to filter content, CJ is more frequently performed by individuals or autonomously within small teams, acting as their own gatekeepers and fact-checkers.

Findings by Carpenter (2008, p. 542) suggest “traditional journalists are more likely to rely on routines” surrounding information-gathering, than are CJs. This raises a common criticism of CJ by those in the MSM, that of trustworthiness.

Without being knowledgeable about professional news practices, amateurs attempting to be CJs risk defamation and the spreading of falsehoods, which can reflect poorly on the media that not only faces declining readership but now must desperately avoid the label of ‘fake news’.

While the traditional media have trusted routines of newsgathering, there is unfortunately a growing reliance on pre-packaged news and press releases, due to “pressures on journalists to increase productivity” (Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008, p. 1), which threatens to undermine public confidence in the MSM.

The ‘information subsidies’ presented by “[Public Relations] practitioners and other suppliers of pre-packaged news” assist the profitability of news organisations, but “compromise the independence of the press” by blurring the line between journalism and PR (Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008, p. 2) and leading to news outputs favouring those sources, “notably business and government, best able to produce strong and effective PR material” (p. 18).

The decline in profitability for news organisations has shrunk their budgets for independent investigation, leading to the media’s “meaningful independent journalistic activity” becoming the “exception rather than the rule” (Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008, p. 18).

It has also led to breaches of ethics, such as the ‘News of the World’ phone hacking scandal. That scandal led to the Leveson Inquiry, which found UK media corporations were driven by the drive to procure exclusive scoops by increasingly unethical means. Ultimately, this was motivated by the desire to sell more papers and make more profit. Brock (2013, ch. 8) notes, “the theme of hypocrisy over proclaiming high standards and carrying out low practices recurs throughout [the inquiry]”.

The reliance of the MSM on profitability also lends itself towards sensationalism and outrage to generate interest, over-reliance upon official sources and under-reporting of wrongdoing by corporate parent companies. This leads to the public sphere being jeopardised by “a capitalist mass media that both dominates and ‘pre-structures’ nearly all public debate” (Lindner, Connell & Meyer 2015, p. 554) to favour elites, often shutting out or marginalising activist voices.

The top criticisms of corporate MSM that necessitate CJ, as found by Rauch (2015, p. 134), were corporate ownership, commercial interests and profit motives. More than three quarters of those Rauch surveyed agreed the MSM were compromised by corporate interests, biased by the politics of owners, compromised by advertising, motivated too much by profit and supportive of the status quo.

This indicates that the democratising impact of CJ is more of a threat to the elite-dominated status quo than it is a direct threat to the profitability of the MSM. Who is watching the watchers? Citizen Journalists.

In Conclusion

While the growth of democratised news-dissemination in the form of CJ may make a fine scapegoat for declining profits and restraints upon limited consumer attention, it is not the main threat to the MSM. Consumer confidence must be buttressed and people need to be convinced that paying for online news subscriptions is worthwhile.

CJ represents a challenge to elite domination of the public sphere, along with state and even non-state actors who may seek to gain hegemony over the narrative-defining process of media. Additionally, the media’s reliance on pre-packaged news and press releases is a documented factor as to why people turn to citizen journalism.

If MSM perceive CJ as a threat, they must address this factor. Ultimately, a flawed and fledgling CJ community, contributing to the public discourse in a flourishing democratic public sphere, is preferable to authoritarianism or an environment in which journalists’ heads are mailed to their families by ruthless drug cartels. Surely, those things are a far greater threat to the traditional media than Citizen Journalism.

Addendum

For an example of some citizen journalism conducted by yours truly, see my coverage of the ‘Invasion Day‘ protests in Brisbane this year.

Reference List:

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