Professional vs. Citizen Journalism: Contextual Authority

February 10, 2009

Immediacy, accuracy and objectivity: these are the three most commonly employed bases of comparison between professional and citizen journalism. Much of the discussion concerning these two forms of news reportage revolves around the relevance of one vis-a-vis the other, and the weight of positive opinion seems to be on the side of citizen journalism, because it seems to have proven itself to be more immediate, as accurate (if not more so), and arguably more objective, since individuals are not subject to corporate or governmental interests. Yet, opponents raise valid objections in pointing out that citizen journalism’s lack of submission to editorial authority and lack of training in established journalistic practices potentially compromises accuracy and objectivity, because of unchecked information and unmitigated individual biases. Who’s right? Who’s better?

Is one better than the other?

This simple paraphrasing of the existing discussion into the above-stated questions immediately elucidates the problem with this evaluative approach: isn’t it too simplistic? Given the respective strengths and weaknesses of professional and citizen journalism, it would be arguably impossible to find a unanimously better form of reportage; Rather, it is necessary that we take the extra step of examining and illustrating the differing conditions under which one form has more contextual authority than the other.

Take for example the coverage of the US Occupation of Iraq. If one wanted to know the scale of the operation in factual statistics such as the total amount of government spending or the precise number of troops deployed, one would probably turn to official journalistic outlets such as the New York Times who have established links with the government that permit them access to such information. This is information expected of these institutions, and they record these in keeping with professional standards. If one wanted an expert opinion of what these statistics mean for US government spending as a whole, or the political development of the Middle East, one would probably also turn to official academic journals or interviews conducted with respected specialists in these subjects by the same official media outlets, whose repute and wide readership demand the integrity of these experts in rendering their opinions. However, if one wanted to learn about the day-to-day, personal experience of living in Iraq for an Iraqi citizen or an average US soldier, citizen journalism would be most valuable in providing this intimate insight. Thus, it can be observed that the preferred form of journalism depends on the information you seek – statistical or experiential –  and the context within which this information exists – whether its scale is national or personal.

Citizen journalism has certainly added value and complexity to the sphere of journalism, but it doesn’t appear set to replace or displace professional journalism. I am of the opinion that any claims to citizenship journalism having such an impact on professional journalism are more due to excitement at this new trend and its new possibilities, than due to substantive evidence.

– Hui Lim

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