The collection and analysis of news and information by the general public, known as citizen journalism, acts as a crowd sourcing of news. At first glance it may sound like a great idea, but when you move past the superficial, one can clearly see that it is a new low for journalism. Citizen journalism is destructive to the media due to three basic issues: quality, personal expression and legal repercussions.
While the benefit of citizen journalism is that it is done in "real time," more so than traditional forms of journalism, this is also one of its greatest weaknesses, since these citizen journalists just post what they see without taking the time to check the facts. The best example of this is the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that brought citizen journalism into the national conversation.
As Newsweek reported on April 15, 2015, “a Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi was falsely identified on Reddit as one of two suspects in a surveillance photograph circulated by the FBI.”
Not only did citizen journalists put out information before the police wanted it released, but they also put Tripathi and his family at risk by proclaiming that he was responsible for the most horrible attack on Boston in recent memory. The Tripathis took to Facebook, saying that they had been harassed relentlessly until the police set the record straight, according to the New York Times.
The second strike against citizen journalism is that these citizens do not see themselves as journalists; therefore they are not following journalistic principles such as objectivity and fact checking.
Nicholas Lehman, a professor of journalism and former dean emeritus of the faculty of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, puts it best in an article he wrote for the New Yorker entitled: “Amateur Hour Journalism without Journalists.”
“Most bloggers see themselves as engaging only in personal expression,” he writes.
This is indicative of the issue with citizen journalism: these individuals often have no experience in journalism, as they only see their work as a form of self-expression and allow personal feelings to cloud their research and their reporting. They cannot be held accountable for wrong or misleading information. If the New York Times claimed that Hillary Clinton was hiding weapons of mass destruction in her home, Hillary Clinton would sue the New York Times for defamation and with good reason. This sort of accountability is nowhere to be found on the Internet; so if, for example, Reddit or BuzzFeed users made such claims, there would be no one to stop them.
The third and final strike against citizen journalists is presented by Edward Greenberg, a New York City litigator, who explains, "So-called shield laws, which protect reporters from revealing sources, vary from state to state. On occasion, the protection is dependent on whether the person asserted the claim is in fact a journalist.”
This simply means that citizen journalists will be forced to reveal their sources in court, which can be a huge detriment to, not only the citizen journalists, but also the sources they now cannot protect. This also limits the actual journalism that can be done by citizens because, if sources are aware they might be forced to into the public eye, they will not talk to a citizen journalist that cannot protect them.
In the end, the Internet is a populist tool, since everyone has access to a voice and most people use it. This is the inherent problem in people doing a job they were not trained for; you would not be a lawyer without passing the bar, or a surgeon without a medical degree. Citizen journalism is destructive to traditional journalism and national discourse, as it is of low quality, does not hold itself to a journalistic standard and citizen journalists are not able to protect its sources.