The Problem with Citizen Journalism

February 24, 2006
Category: Uncategorized

User generated content presents a lot of challenges for newsrooms and the biggest might be what to call it. For better or for worse, citizen journalism is a moniker that appears to be sticking. Probably for worse.

Howard Rothman, a contributor to New West, an Internet site for Rocky Mountain communities, points out just one problem with such content in his recent blog posting. The Rocky Mountain News produces YourHub, which is distributed by Denver Newspaper Agency, as a place where citizens from dozens of communities can list events, create blogs, sell stuff and even “write stories.”

Several of those stories are nothing more than press releases, Rothman points out. Many are puff pieces on candidates running for office like this story about a businessman running for a state legislative seat.

It’s great that newspapers host these sites. It’s a wonderful service for community. They are often interesting, vibrant and exciting. But it’s not journalism. So don’t call it that. Journalism is an independent act of gathering and assembling information by an organization. The work is completed in service of the audience. The journalists’ loyalities are with the reader and viewer. You might question the independence and loyality of various news organizations, or even all news organizations. But at least, in theory, you expect those values to guide the process of gathering news. You wouldn’t expect that from a candidate’s PR woman writing a press release.

In this media saturated world, in this era of viral marketing, how’s the average consumer supposed to know the difference between real journalism and a cleverly disguised press release or a marketing campaign? We could start by labeling them as such.

So what should we call this user-generated content? The Exchange? The Town Square? Anything Goes? Clever labels might help. A solid and prominent description of the goals of the site will do more. YourHub.com has a decent “about” description. But it’s way down at the bottom of the page in tiny type. And while it tells folks what YourHub.com is, it doesn’t say what it isn’t.

Let’s call it something else. If you would like to toss out the term citizen journalism, what other label do you suggest?

(You’ll find additional discussion about this issue on E-Media Tidbits and Romenesko.)

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly reported that YourHub was created by the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. In fact, the site is produced by the Rocky Mountain News and it is distributed by the Denver Newspaper Agency.