Revolutionary Measures

The rise of citizen journalism

A poster wrote with "Evolving Citizen Jou...

Pretty much everyone now has the means to report what is going on in the world around them. Even the most basic phone has a camera, and it is simple to post images, video and text to social media sites at the click of a button. Consequently citizen journalists – ordinary people doing the job of trained reporters – are everywhere.

And there are significant benefits to our understanding of the world. Particularly in straitened times, journalists can’t be everywhere at once and often arrive after the news event has actually happened. In many cases, such as during the Arab Spring, journalists can be banned or censored by regimes and individuals that don’t want stories to be reported. So citizen journalists with camera phones can be our sole source of first hand information. Much of this then feeds into the traditional media, with TV news and national newspapers running stories based on reports filed by citizen journalists.

Nearer to home, the closure of many local newspapers has spurred community activists to launch alternative sites and blogs. Many of these aim to hold local councils and elected representatives to account, using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth key facts about how we are governed.

All great stuff and to be praised, but there are three key reasons that we should be wary about what citizen journalists write, publish and upload.

Firstly, bias. As someone that studied history, I know that bias is evident in anything we say, write or do – whether we know it or not. Professional journalists are trained to understand both sides of a story and (as much as possible) divorce bias from what they are writing. It is why the majority of stories have quotes for and against a subject in them, even if the overall tone is slanted to left or right. Citizen journalists don’t have this training and may well have an axe to grind – potentially making their reports unreliable, whether consciously or not.

Second, the law. The laws of libel apply equally to the internet, as many people found out with the Lord McAlpine case. Again, journalists are trained to understand libel law and what can and can’t be said. Reddit’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated what can happen when citizen journalists are given an unpoliced platform. The site’s Find Boston Bombers thread wrongly accused several people of being involved in the atrocity, leading to harassment of their families and potentially slowing down the police investigation. In today’s instant news cycle, where an unsubstantiated tweet can be front page news in seconds, there’s a real issue with potentially malicious or unthinking reports quickly making it into the mainstream news.

Finally, there’s the area of copyright. Lots of news sites now actively encourage you to upload your pictures, video and text to give added perspective on news and features. The latest, the Guardian’s Witness site, provides the chance to contribute to live news and other content through a smartphone app. Content is vetted before going onto the site, with stories and videos made available to journalists for potentially developing into bigger pieces. All great, except that as soon as you post your prized video, The Guardian gets an unconditional, perpetual and worldwide licence to use it as it sees fit. You may still retain the copyright, but the paper can commercially exploit the content however it wants.

Controlling how news is reported and disseminated is inextricably linked to power. Hence why dictatorships have always censored or removed the free press and run state TV stations with a rod of iron. While much of the western world has moved on from that, media is often controlled by a certain group, making citizen journalism a vital part of the opening up of reporting to everyone. But if it is to truly make a lasting impact for good, citizen journalists need to understand their own responsibilities when it comes to bias, the law and copyright and act accordingly.

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Creative, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is this an irrelevant blog?

Newspaper vendor, Paddington, London, February...

Everyone knows that the publishing landscape has changed forever thanks to the internet. The rise of blogs and free blogging software has radically brought down the cost of getting your opinions onto the internet and many blog based sites (such as the Huffington Post) have made lots of money out of the move.

But there’s a big fear that the Government’s new press regulations could potentially threaten small blogs by including them in the legislation. If they don’t sign up to the new regulator they risk high fines if sued by libel by an aggrieved reader. The key test is if it is ‘a relevant publisher’, generating news material where there is an editorial structure giving some control over publication. So by that token, this blog is irrelevant when posted to my own site (though you probably knew that anyway). Except that when it is republished on the Cabume website there is then some editorial control so it suddenly becomes relevant. Essentially if I libel someone Cabume carries the can.

Obviously a small blog wittering on about startups, PR and technology is unlikely to be sued, no matter how relevant it is. But for other smaller, blog-based sites, particularly political ones this opens up a stark choice – sign up to the regulator and face an arbitration system that is focused on protecting individuals who complain or risk crippling fines. It is the same for local newspapers, already suffering due to the rise of the internet. Given the work they do in uncovering local political, public sector and business corruption their trade body The Newspaper Society believes the regulations would ‘inhibit freedom of speech and the freedom to publish’.

My own opinion is that the internet cannot be beyond the law. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case showed that you can’t repeat false allegations and expect to get away with it, neither should you be able to libel someone on your blog with impunity. But the new regulations throw up a number of questions – what happens if your content is on a US server? Why are student publications exempt? Will journalists set themselves up as one man/woman band blogs to get round regulation? There has to be a more flexible way of regulating online content in the internet age – my relevant/irrelevant fear is that lawyers will be the chief beneficiaries of the new regulations rather than either press freedom or genuine victims of press intrusion.

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March 20, 2013 Posted by | Creative, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment