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The Morality of Citizen Journalism

The morality of citizen journalism has been making headlines lately.

In the simplest terms, citizen journalists are people who do not practice journalism professionally, but perform the same function (reporting the news) through various forms, including blogs, podcasts, photos, or videos. It’s primarily found online and doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional journalism standards.

Citizen journalism is not a new concept, the term’s been around since the 1980s when everyday people would report on the presidential election. Like basically everything else, the internet has taken citizen journalism to a new level. With an unlimited amount of outlets for people to voice opinions and share articles, ______.

There are several controversial topics surrounding citizen journalism right now, including:

Should citizen journalists be paid for their work?

On April 4th a video of South Carolina police officer Michael Slager went viral. The video depicted Slager shooting a fleeing suspect. 23 year old Feidin Santana witnessed the what has been ruled homicide and recorded the video on his cell phone.

Santana connected with Australian publicist Max Markson and has since licensed the video, asking for $10,000+ for the use of the video from media outlets. People are up in arms about this; should a bystander with a camera be awarded a payout for being a good citizen? This raises the question of citizen journalism ethics.

Journalists get paid for their photos and videos, so it could be argued that Santana deserves a payout as well. Journalists go into war zones and capture horrible things on film that they profit from. This isn’t that different.

We’ll likely see many more of these cases in the near future as things like the death of Freddie Grey are becoming easier to capture on camera.

What are the ethics involved in citizen journalism?

Like I mentioned, whether citizen journalists should be paid for their work or not is connected to the question of ethics in citizen journalism.

Professional journalists spent countless hours of their education learning the dos and don’ts of the industry created by the Society of Professional journalists. Things such as check your facts, have sources, don’t accept gifts, etc are all to be adhered to by journalists.

We’ve determined there’s a murky distinction between a professional journalist and a citizen journalist, and the line is becoming more blurred every day, but that doesn’t mean amateurs need to follow these guidelines. So what is to govern their behavior? Right now there isn’t anything.

How does this affect the traditional ‘witness’ role of bystanders?

I began thinking about this questions after reading this article from the Columbia Journalism Review that asks if average citizens who shoot video footage of wrongdoings are witnesses or journalists?

The best quote from the article is, “Technology has transformed the act of witnessing from a highly personal and subjective experience to something that is increasingly collective and shared.” – Joel Simon

When something happens, our first instinct is to capture it with our cell phones. That’s how the Boston bomber was first apprehended; a citizen fleeing the scene turned and snapped a picture that happened to have the suspect in the background. These recordings have proven invaluable in the courtroom and provide a visual testimony to what the witness claims to have seen.

I think the cartoon below sums up citizen journalism perfectly.




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