Citizen journalism, particularly the recording of breaking news through photos and video, is an essential part of modern reporting. But it is only half of the work. It is the job of journalists to put this raw information through the process of verification.
It isn’t possible for journalists to be at every place where news could possibly break, standing on guard with their cameras ready to shoot. But luckily, most people have a smartphone that can capture the fire, natural disaster or act of injustice unfolding before their eyes. These photos and videos are called user-generated content, or UGC, by journalists.
Citizen journalism provides direct evidence, and thanks to social media, it can reach a wide audience. But it doesn’t replace or harm the work of journalists. A journalist needs to verify that the photo, video or eyewitness account is legitimate. This can include talking to the person who recorded it to get context, verifying the buildings in the background to establish the location it was shot, and even looking at metadata to confirm the time and date it was recorded.
Some of the most powerful citizen journalism has captured police brutality against Blacks, including the deaths of George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Daniel T. Prude. These videos, sometimes live-streamed, provide direct evidence that is difficult or impossible to refute. They also helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement and a wave of protests that has reached around the world.
Citizen journalism also allows BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) to play a bigger role in telling their own stories, rather than relying on journalists.
However, citizen journalism and iPhones do not solve the larger problem of the lack of diversity in newsrooms. The news industry is whiter and more male than the country as a whole and major media outlets “perpetuate inaccurate representations of Black families,” according to a 2017 study.
That’s why it is fundamentally important to recruit, train, and support women and BIPOC journalists who can shape the narratives about all communities and lead newsrooms to be more inclusive and diverse.