Can everyone be a journalist nowadays?

The creation of the internet instigated a rapidly changing media landscape whereby news is now able to be disseminated at a much faster rate and attain a far broader audience reach than ever before. Journalism, like any other social discourse, can be identified as a “distinct… group with distinct patterns of behaviour” (Schudson 2001, p. 157). In order to assess whether everyone can be considered a ‘journalist’ in the modern day, it must be determined what characteristics constitute the journalism profession. It will be assumed that those who are not professional journalists hold the potential to become a citizen journalist.

“Journalism was built upon the twin pillars of truth and objectivity” (Ward 2009, p. 301). Professional journalists are required to adhere to the traditional journalistic ethical standards of truth, objectivity, accuracy and verification. While these elements may, in practice, act as guidelines rather than enforced social norms, they are ideals nonetheless towards which anyone who is to be considered a ‘journalist’ must strive. It is fair to propose that “news professionals at every level… express an adamant allegiance to a set of core standards that are striking in their commonality and in their linkage to the public information mission” (Kovach & Rosentiel 2007, p. 14). On the other side of the spectrum, there are the citizen journalists who are widely considered “amateur media producers”. They consist of any individuals in society who take that further step in veering away from the passive, ordinary news consumer to actively partaking in public discussion (Atton 2009, pp. 266). Technology has played a major role in “transforming citizens from passive consumers of news produced by professionals into active participants who can assemble their own journalism” and it has been suggested by academics that the “twenty-first century must recognize this and help arm the public with the tools it needs to perform this more active form of citizenship” (Kovach & Rosentiel 2007, p. 19).

According to Stephen Ward (2009, p. 295) the main ethical issues surrounding contemporary journalism are those of “editorial independence, verification, anonymous sources, the use of graphic or altered images, and norms for new forms of media”. Each of these factors, along with some additional vital ethical considerations, are to be addressed in order to measure whether just anyone may fit the ideal ‘journalist’ description. Some view the digital age to have given rise to “new, enriched types of news reporting” and despite the concentration of media ownership evident in the world today – in the words of BBC Director of Global News Richard Sambrook – “news organizations do not own the news anymore” (Allan 2010, p. 9). If this statement is to hold some truth, then who is now controlling the news and are these people really journalists by definition?

At the heart of the journalism profession lies the celebrated notion of objectivity. It became a “fully formulated occupational ideal” by the early 1900s and has since set a certain moral code which “guides journalists to separate facts from values”, thus promoting fairness (Schudson 2001, pp. 150-163). There is a noted metaphor which recognises journalists as torch bearers of information in society who are to “give light so people can find their own way” (Kovach & Rosentiel 2005, p. 15). While professional journalists have a bank of widespread ethical considerations, such as that of ‘objectivity’, which are heavily entrenched within their approach and attitude towards news coverage from the early stages of their career, they inevitably find themselves caught in amongst the commercial nature of news culture in working under the authority of a media organisation which generally functions first and foremost as a business. In this way, citizen journalism provides an avenue whereby individuals may report on the news independent of government or business influence (Ward 2009, p. 298) and free themselves of the burden of having to maintain healthy relations with employers, editors or corporate advertisers. This alternative approach in many ways perhaps even seems to be more closely aligned with the concept of objectivity than it is in the filtering process which news ordinarily undergoes through utilising the traditional, largely commercial, journalism model.

Journalism is further directed towards “seeking a greater diversity of sources… and telling such stories from the perspective of non-dominant groups” (Ward 2009, p. 303). “Journalists need the ability to look at things from multiple points of view and the ability to get to the core of matters” in order to fulfil their role as the fourth estate (Kovach & Rosentiel 2007, p. 19). The conveyance of all facts and viewpoints in a balanced manner encourages news consumers to develop their own stance on various topics and to judge the truth for themselves. It is the role of “the news media [to] serve as a watchdog, push people beyond complacency, and offer a voice to the forgotten” (Kovach & Rosentiel 2007, p. 12). This is quite evident across amateur journalism as well as the professional media landcape as the amateur sharing of blog posts via social media enables news consumers to obtain their information from a variety of sources who are represented by members of different societal brackets within the community; both on a local and global scale.

According to Gaye Tuchman (1978, p. 86), journalists are “both individually and collectively self-validating”, together constituting a “web of facticity by establishing themselves as cross-referents to one another”. This is true of both professional and amateur journalists alike as they are able to keep one another accountable by reporting on any unethical movements of the other. There is also a crossover between these platforms as professional journalists have begun to adopt blogging roles, independent of their professional positions, in order to communicate more freely in the absence of the limitations imposed by the various media organisations to which they would ordinarily report. Social media is yet another platform that allows qualified journalists to report news in a direct, concise way that invites readers to formulate their own opinions on issues.

It has been argued that cases such as Wikileaks have “exposed the passivity of modern journalism” as there is far too much information on the web that is not being effectively scrutinised by the fourth estate (Dunlop 2010). This may only be partially due to the heavy influx of information made available by the internet where there is a seemingly “endless stream of information” (Ansgard 2012, p. 61). It may also be attributed to the fact that there are fewer paid jobs available for qualified journalists and, as a result, they are largely time poor due to the pressure of producing a certain number of articles to tighter deadlines; a public duty which was previously spread across a greater team of reporters. While news is more easily accessible in the contemporary world, there seems to be an underlying tendency for humans to conform, and repetition across media publications is apparent in both the professional and amateur reporting realms. The “dominant field of discourses tends to be reproduced ‘spontaneously’ by journalists” (Curran 2002, p. 142) and sadly, fabricated material has also weaved its way into feeding this flame that masquerades fiction and rumour as news. This is largely undermining of the traditional notions of cautious verification, accuracy and truth and draws attention to the need for some kind of large scale monitoring of information online. Others even go so far as to suggest that the internet clutters professionally gathered information, presenting readers with “less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information (Hirst 2011, p. 18). An important component of journalistic standards is that professionals are equipped with the knowledge and skills “to verify what information is reliable and then order it so people can grasp it efficiently” (Kovach & Rosentiel 2007, p. 19).

It is also questionable as to whether the seriously relaxed regulation of online content allows for information that is perhaps not in the public’s best interests of which to be informed,  inevitably spilling into the hands of consumers. It may prove to be dangerous if citizen journalists are immune to the consequences of influencing the potential miscarriage of justice. An example in support of this argument is that of news coverage of sensitive areas such as suicides, or murders where those charged are awaiting trial. By law, the media should not be seen to sway public opinion in this regard as this could potentially in turn affect the judgment of a jury in a criminal trial. This could quite severely negate the authority of the courts in carrying out the operation of justice. There are numerous protection laws for the news media where journalists are essentially defined as ‘information providers’. The most obvious issue in this regard is therefore to what extent citizen journalists will be protected by the law should a case, relating to these matters, arise. Online anonymity is yet another aspect of the new media platform challenging the fundamental journalistic concept of accountability.

Through utilising readily available broadcasting platforms like YouTube, breaking news may be instantly disseminated worldwide via the online sharing of raw footage and photographs by citizens who so happen to stumble across a newsworthy item by chance. This has led some academics to draw the conclusion that professional journalists “no longer control the gates of information flows” and find themselves in the unfamiliar position of “not necessarily being the first ones to provide the news” (Ansgard 2012, pp. 60-62). They rather, often find themselves incorporating tweets, blog posts and home videos, products of citizen journalism, as sources whereby they have deemed the material to hold enough of the relevant characteristics of ‘news’ to be worthy of coverage by the commercial media.

A certain level of credibility and authority attaches itself to the ‘professional journalist’ who writes for a well-respected publication, in comparison to an online blogger whose information is more likely to be acknowledged with a somewhat critical eye. Qualified reporters further have greater access to sources for information and an extensive list of professional contacts for comment on various issues, thus gaining a more authoritative voice within their works as a whole. The information is gathered and based around fundamental evidence sourced from noted figures and official sources, rather than from recycled material or a single idea of the author themselves as prominent in blogging. It must be remembered that the purpose of news is not only to inform readers, but to also help them understand (Schudson 2001, p. 164). To do so appropriately and effectively, some general knowledge of the prescribed area being reported on is necessary. If not, relevant research should be conducted so as to allow the subject to come to this more informed understanding of the issue to be explored.

In spite of the changing media landscape, “news is still what news always was: a socially constructed account of reality… a representation of the real”. (McNair 2006, p. 6). Regardless of who is behind its creation, the true essence of news itself will remain. This notion is reinforced by Kovach & Rosentiel (2007, p. 11) who suggest that “the purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ”, thus confirming that the news creators may range from those qualified to mere amateur reporters.

The press, however, has “a moral as well as a material existence” (Chadwick 1994, p. 169) and so the actual content of journalism must also be considered in conjunction with the journalistic standards to which they adhere. Citizen journalism gives rise to more opinion, often rejecting efforts to maintain balanced, objective reports of societal issues. The online platform further makes it more difficult for consumers to differentiate news from opinion, and even separate these areas from an entirely different genre known as news satire. It raises the question as to whether these other aspects undermine the citizen journalist’s credibility in formulating factual news based on well researched facts and supporting evidence as is expected in the journalism field.

Michael Schudson (1996, p. 175) once wrote, “news institutions do not define politics any more than political structures fully determine the news; there is an ongoing interaction”. Similarly, it is an ungrounded argument to suggest that either professional or citizen journalism is to overcome the other as there is a continuous communication flow between the two forces which appear to operate in a rather natural fashion alongside one another. Therefore, it is invalid to generalise that “the people formerly known as the audience challenge the professional group of journalists formerly known as the sole providers” (Ansgard 2012, p. 60).

While citizen journalism may not always address each of the journalistic ideals, when deliberated realistically, neither does commercial journalism in effect as it possess limitations of its own due to its primary function as a profitable business entity. The branding of citizen journalists as real, acting ‘journalists’ among society is inescapable as they have already harnessed much power in the online realm of journalism, having their work often circulated throughout the professional arenas of public forum. By continuing to work together like this, both professional and citizen journalists will aid in keeping one another in check and accountable. As put by Stephen Ward (2009, p.297), journalism has entered the stage of the “mixed media” and while this calls some traditional journalistic values into question, these amateur communicators are ultimately influential information providers in today’s society. They are to be embraced, willingly or otherwise, by the professional arm of the journalism sphere as journalists in their own right.



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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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