Citizen Journalism and the Quest for Good PR

May 1, 2008
Category: Uncategorized

In the many academic discussions about “citizen journalism,” few consider how it relates to public relations for nonprofits. On Apr. 28, Elizabeth Toledo wrote in PR Week about how citizen journalism affects non-profits. She raised some ethical concerns.

First, Toledo states that the old model was for “advocacy organizations” to influence media by “sending press releases, holding press events, submitting letters to the editor, and publishing newsworthy information.” The editor or columnist then acted as a filter, and organizations with good reputations “could generally count on professional journalists to dismiss accusations that did not have a solid foundation.”

Concerned about how both CNN and the New York Times appear to be increasing citizen involvement on their sites, Toledo says “the editor’s role shrinks while the role of the ‘citizen journalist’ grows. Leading news sites… will invite the public to submit their own stories and, through a combination of popularity and relevance, the public will drive which stories make it through the firewall onto the evening news. It’s not simply that more op-eds will make it onto the editorial pages — these citizen journalists will drive which stories grab the attention of the news reporters as well.” (Note: The New York Times does not publish citizen contributions in the manner of CNN iReport.)

Toledo depicts “citizen journalism” as having the potential to be tool of special interests, and warns of “ideological opponents” that might flood services like CNN’s iReport with negative information and spurious commentary, and that this might make it, unfiltered, on to CNN.

Her advice to nonprofit managers who might not understand this “fusion of social networking and news” is to urge content creation: “The upside is that a nonprofit will be able to take full advantage of its local supporters. In the past, these organizations urged their supporters to submit letters to the editor in response to a news story, but today’s proactive entities will prompt supporters to submit content to create the news.”

Is Toledo advocating a defensive position for nonprofits in response to something that hasn’t happened yet? She doesn’t say whether the problem with iReport content is the nature of the contributed content on that site, or whether it is with the iReport content that CNN selects for broadcast.

In February, Jon Dube spoke with Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services and addressed the issue of unfiltered content making it to a CNN broadcast. Grant said: “Before an iReport is used on-air or on CNN.com, the content undergoes the same extensive vetting process as all of CNN’s reporting does. Our own journalists, who are well trained at verifying the authenticity of news reports and events, follow steps to verify the events captured in iReports that are used on CNN and on CNN.com. There is no set number of people involved in the process, as each CNN reporter, producer and show has the ability to select an iReport submission appropriate to use in their reporting.”

Still, this seems like an ethical conundrum from several angles:

  • Should non-profits urge constituents to basically “fight fire with fire” and call it “citizen journalism”?
  • Does contributed content uploaded to something like iReport immediately become “citizen journalism,” or is it transformed into “citizen journalism” once it is vetted and aired?
  • Where, then, is the line between advocacy and “citizen journalism”? Or is that line becoming further blurred?

What do you think?