Learning from this week’s crash course in citizen journalism

As newspapers and other traditional media outlets continue to lay off reporters and even shut down their printing presses, one of the big questions has been what will fill the gap that is left — where will the journalism come from? In some cases, papers are outsourcing hyperlocal reporting to services such as Journatic (which has been criticized for a series of ethical lapses), but this week we’ve seen signs that something else could help as well: namely, amateurs committing what Andy Carvin of NPR has called “random acts of journalism.” They may not replace the traditional journalism we’re used to, but they are certainly going to help, and they could even bring additional benefits that mainstream journalism doesn’t provide.
The first example of this came on Monday, when gang-related gunfire broke out at a party in Toronto, Ontario and two people were killed. Before mainstream media sources had time to put together a coherent report on the incident, a Reddit user had compiled a fairly comprehensive story using Twitter — complete with links to individual tweets from the person who allegedly hosted the party, as well as one of the victims and a number of other eyewitnesses. Although it had flaws, it was a great illustration of how someone with a little time and resourcefulness can generate something journalistic about a breaking news event.

We are seeing a new form of journalism emerge

When I wrote about the role that Twitter and Reddit played, and how they acted as a kind of “crowdsourced newsroom,” I had no idea that we would get another example of the same phenomenon so quickly. But just a few days later Reddit showed up again in the front ranks of media sources reporting on a breaking news event: namely, the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. A Reddit user — an 18-year-old student named Morgan Jones, who was later profiled by Buzzfeed’s John Hermann — created a timeline of the incident, including links to related stories. When asked why he did this, Jones said something interesting:

“I stayed up all night, and I am exhausted now. But it feels like I’m helping out people who need to know this stuff.”

That may not be the best description of what journalism is, but it’s not bad. And Jones also pointed out to NPR that when facts were corrected, he didn’t delete the mistake and replace it — he did a strikethrough of the mistake and added the correct information below in order to “give people an idea of how it’s changing. So it’s transparent.” he says. And he said of the crowdsourced approach to news that the Reddit community takes that “people will put up with minor inaccuracies because they know someone will call them out and change it.” That’s not a bad summary of how web-based or “process” journalism works (the Reddit user in the Toronto shooting case said he was “just a guy who thinks mainstream media coverage of almost everything is woefully inadequate”).

Whenever the topic of “citizen journalism” comes up, professional journalists often respond to the idea with thinly-disguised derision, and in some cases trot out analogies about “citizen dentistry” or “citizen brain surgery.” Even while Andy Carvin was putting on a master class in Twitter-based reporting and curation during the Arab Spring revolutions last year, some critics argued that what he was doing wasn’t actually journalism. Similar arguments have been made about the role Reddit has played in reporting on the shootings in Toronto and Colorado — that it may be worthwhile, or interesting, but not really journalism.

Not “is it journalism,” but “is it useful?”

As I’ve argued before, asking whether what happens on Twitter and Reddit — or Facebook or on blogs for that matter — qualifies as journalism is in many ways a red herring. That question may be of interest to professional journalists, particularly those who see their jobs as being under threat from web-based sources and social media, but what really matters for users or readers is whether the information provided is valuable or not. Does it tell them something important? Is it credible? Is it useful? By any of those kinds of objective standards, what Reddit users accomplished in both the Toronto and Colorado cases definitely qualifies.
One of the points that web developer Stijn Debrouwere made in a recent post about the future of journalism was that the news business is being disrupted not just by digital forms of traditional media, or things that are recognizable as news outlets — such as The Huffington Post(s aol) or Politico — but by things that don’t even look like journalism, including Reddit. Is the site’s “Ask Me Anything” feature, which it has used for everything from crowdsourced interviews with fighter pilots to chats with authors like Margaret Atwood, better than a traditional media interview? In many ways it is, particularly because it is open to anyone.
While the British newspaper The Guardian may get a lot of criticism for its ongoing financial woes, this is one of the core principles behind the “open journalism” that the paper’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has been promoting while others put up paywalls (see disclosure below). If journalism professor Jay Rosen is right when he says that the “people formerly known as the audience” often know more about a subject than those reporting on it, then the only reasonable response is to find as many ways of letting people contribute to journalism as possible.
Is the way that Reddit or Twitter or Facebook practices crowdsourced or networked journalism perfect? But then, traditional journalism isn’t perfect either — it’s worth noting that one of the more serious examples of an error in the Colorado reporting came from ABC News, which drew a link between the shooter and the Tea Party when there wasn’t one. But there are definitely lessons that we can take from these recent events, and one is that journalism is everywhere.
Disclosure: Guardian News and Media Ltd., the parent company of the Guardian newspaper, is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Christian Scholz and Denise Chan