While citizen journalism has been around for hundreds of years in one form or another, however it became popularised less than 40 years ago. Citizens began to report on the 1988 US presidential election, seeking to overcome the lack of trust forming in the media. These citizen journalists became an active part of the public or civic journalism movement.
Since then, we’ve seen a rise in citizen journalism in many forms. Today, over 44% of people globally own and use smart phones, meaning that we are always interconnected (Allan & Thorsen, 2009). Now, citizen journalism is at our finger tips with informative and live Tweets, Facebook posts, and videos merely moments away.
In theory, this should allow for audiences to gather more information quickly and easily. We should have access to a more rounded news narrative, getting all the relevant information from a variety of trusted sources, therefore helping to make media ownership and bias less of an issue.
However in practise, citizen journalism can be filled with loads of problems. Now it’s easy for people to spread misinformation, become misinformed, or potentially even jeopardise legal cases. While it may seem easier to become a citizen journalist, sharing misinformation (intentionally or otherwise) could land people in hot water. Alternatively, qualified journalists have gone through years of study and generally have a legal team behind them advising them as to what’s right or wrong, covering their own backsides in case of trouble.
In 2018, a Danish citizen in Malaysia posted a YouTube video and Facebook accusing police of taking 50 minutes to respond to a shooting in Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian police force brought forward evidence that they took only eight minutes to arrive. Only nine days later, the Danish citizen was convicted in court, pleading guilty to inaccurately reporting police criticism on social media.
The court ruled that he had “published fake news… with ill intent”, though the defendant claimed that the video was posted in a “moment of anger” meaning no harm.Malaysia was one of the first countries to police fake news, with fines going up to $128,000 USD. However, the defendant was fined only $2,552 USD, opting to stay in prison for a month.
Many had criticised Malaysia for their choice to enforce the Anti-Fake News Act, claiming that the law was aimed to shut down free speech before the upcoming 2018 election.
Personally, I believe that citizen journalism can be used for good and for bad. Citizen journalism gives people an opportunity to stay informed, get insider information, and avoid media conglomerates. As an ethical media maker, I’ve used my platforms to report on developing situations, namely the 2019-2020 bush fires in Ulladulla (see below).
However, there are several downsides to citizen journalism (Koc-Michalska et al. 2020):
- People may be misinformed therefore spreading incorrect information.
- People may be politically biased therefore encouraging a political agenda.
- People may take things out of context therefore removing an important element of the story.
- People may share things quickly when feeling a burst of emotion, therefore spreading falsities quickly without second thought, as seen in the above case.
Overall, I believe that citizen journalism has its ups and downs, but when it comes down to it, the issue comes down to the individual user.