Is There Hope for Citizen Reporting?

Another round of bombings in London, another round of citizen journalism. … But Vincent Maher, a new-media lecturer at the Rhodes University School of Journalism & Media Studies in South Africa, says the citizen reporting seems lacking. He’s been busy today compiling a list of links to blogs about today’s attacks, and is on the look-out for good examples of citizen journalism in action.

“I was forced to conclude that, while waiting and watching what the bloggers were up to, I saw precious little actual citizen journalism,” Maher wrote in an e-mail to me earlier today. “All I saw was a bunch of armchair critics and, frankly, bland repetition. I was hoping to find, easily, some pics taken by people from their phones and posted as close to live as possible.”

He continues: “I find it very depressing, as a teacher of this post-it NOW culture, that the traditional media beat the citizens considering that: a) the citizens were actually there whereas the traditional media had to go there reactively, b) somewhere nearby someone must have had the capability to send a pic to a moblog, and c) the blog postings I tracked on Technorati simply regurgitated the traditional media message.”

In his blog, Maher — like me an optimist about the promise of grassroots media — writes: “What this says to me, despite my enthusiasm for citizen journalism and the we media, is that we have a long way to go.”

“It could start with getting paid, of course, but I think the real problem is that it is simply too easy to sit and wait for someone else to write it up and then provide commentary. Journalists are expected to get up and physically go there, take a photo, do something, and get back to post the story. … Bloggers seem to get away with armchair journalism and it’s getting worse and worse.”

Here are my own thoughts: It is early in the grassroots journalism game, so I’m not going to get distressed yet. But every time some big news story like this breaks, where witnesses are using cell-phone cameras and writing to blogs about their experiences, I long for some central, well-publicized website where citizen journalists will know to post their contributions to the event coverage (or contribute links to their content) – and where readers will know to look for citizen accounts (a portal, if you will).

Technorati and services like it are useful in tracking down blog coverage of a news event like this, but what I’m getting at is a service where human editors select and highlight the best citizen reporting and photography — getting rid of links to the stuff that Maher complains about.

And what of getting paid? Yesterday’s item here about Scoopt is one approach — a picture agency looking out for the financial interests of citizens with hot news photos. And I think the news industry needs to think deeper about how to encourage citizens to “do journalism.” As of South Korea shows, modest payments to citizen reporters can go far in encouraging coverage that’s more than regurgitating what others have produced.

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