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Once Hailed as Revolutionary, Citizen Journalism Remains a Work in Progress

Problems with Accuracy and Standards Plague Pro-am News Efforts

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Once Hailed as Revolutionary, Citizen Journalism Remains a Work in Progress
David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images

What ever happened to citizen journalism?

A few years ago it was all the rage with online media geeks, who hailed it as an important part of journalism's future in the brave new digital age.

Citizen journalists, they claimed, would supplement the mainstream media (a collaborative effort known as pro-am journalism) at a time when newspapers were closing and thousands of reporters were being given the ax.

But it's clear the reality hasn't lived up to the hype, and that citizen journalism remains, at best, a work in progress.

Even NYU journalism Professor Jay Rosen, a longtime proponent of citizen journalism, says as much. At a lecture he gave in 2011 Rosen, ever the teacher, gave citizen journalism a series of grades on things like election coverage and crowd-funded reporting projects.

The result? A few As, but many more Ds and Fs. The overall grade was a C-minus. "We're not as far along as we should be," Rosen said.

As an example, Rosen cited CNN's citizen journalism iReport site, which has 750,000 contributors worldwide. But he added: "When an earthquake and tsunami strikes Japan, iReport supplies the footage that professionals cannot. But this is exactly where we were in December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit."

In short, the once-bright promise of citizen journalism remains largely unfulfilled.

Rosen cited a number of obstacles to progress, such as websites that don't make it easy for potential citizen journalists to contribute.

But it's my view that two more fundamental issues are at play here: Standards. And money.

First, standards. From its beginning, citizen journalism has been marred by inaccurate reporting, inadvertent or otherwise, ranging from the 2008 reports that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack to the equally inaccurate claims during Superstorm Sandy that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded.

There's no question that such mistakes, well-publicized as they were, dealt a body blow to not only the image but also the forward momentum of citizen journalism. News consumers were left jaded, and rightly so, by such mistakes, as evidenced by a recent survey that found more than 60 percent of U.S. adults preferred "news stories produced by professional journalists."

If citizen journalism is to have a viable future, it's clear that its practitioners must adopt and adhere to the same kinds of uniform standards as their professional counterparts. How that can be implemented and enforced remains to be seen.

The other issue is money. Citizen journalists, of course, are typically not paid for their efforts, which raises the question of why they should be committed to reporting fundamentals like accuracy and integrity.

In other words, is it realistic to expect citizen journalists to have the same commitment to their work that the paid pros do?

I don't think it is. And that is where the problem lies. As long as citizen journalists remain unpaid amateurs, questions about the quality of their reportage will remain.

Of course, that hasn't stopped some news outlets, like Huffington Post, from exploiting unpaid writers. Stephen Colbert riffed on this idea brilliantly. When CNN laid off 50 staffers -- "nobody important, just editors and photojournalists" -- he praised its use of iReporters.

"It's like an internship," Colbert told his audience. "If you work for free, put in your time and your work is good enough, maybe one day you could be laid off by CNN."

Colbert, perhaps unwittingly, raised an important point: In an era when layoffs are common and jobs are scarce, in a profession where the work is hard and the pay is low, it's tough enough sometimes for paid reporters to stay motivated.

So why would anyone do this work - and do it well - for free?

That's the real problem that citizen journalism faces.

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