Citizen journalists are increasingly important members of the news media ecosystem. They often provide the first photos and video after a disaster and firsthand reports from war zones too dangerous for journalists.
According to NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen, citizen journalism is “when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” These days that press tool is a smartphone. Armed with a smartphone, citizen journalists capture raw information and offer it to news outlets or bypass journalistic gatekeepers entirely by posting it on social media. News organizations even have a name for this: UGC or user-generated content.
Most news outlets welcome UGC from their audiences and have portals for the public to upload it confidentially. The Guardian’s Community page asks members of the public for videos, photos, and stories of any event they deem newsworthy. It also has a secure drop where people can share confidential files in complete anonymity.
In 2008, CNN launched a website for citizen journalists called iReport, which attracted 1.5 million users and then in 2015, shifted that content to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #CNNiReport.
Once a news outlet is in possession of the UGC, it’s up to journalists to verify that information before it’s used in a news story.
Journalists have many tools at their disposal like reverse image searches, geolocators, lateral reading (verifying what you’re reading as you’re reading it), and fact-checking sites. For example, a journalist might look up the location where a photo or video was supposedly shot and compare it to the same location on the Google Maps street view to see if the landmarks line up. Or for events in the past, a journalist can look up what the weather was like at that time and place to see if it lines up with the photo.
Another key factor in verification is talking to the person who shot the UGC. The journalist will typically ask them how they came to take this photo or video, and suspect stories are usually evident (or the person suddenly ghosts).
Once this content is verified, journalists need permission to use the UGC. This typically means asking the person to agree to a legal statement that gives the news organization the rights to republish the content, often across multiple platforms. This process further weeds out UGC that isn’t legitimate.
So while citizen journalists will never replace traditional journalists, their reporting from the frontlines in Syria to police shootings here in the U.S. have forever changed the way information reaches news consumers.