How Leading Publications Can Prepare For A Tidal Wave of Citizen Reporting
During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, CNN made a gaffe when it falsely announced that the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water. Chad Mayers and other leading media figures like Piers Morgan were left gasping for breath, after it was revealed that the ‘scoop’ came from an unverified ‘citizen reporter’ on Twitter, but the potential effects on the economy could have been catastrophic.
Advances in smartphone technology, and increased global access to social networks have evolved ‘citizen reporting’ into an important and increasingly organized branch of the media industry, offering ‘front line’ insights which can be posted much faster than when publications follow normal editorial processes.
Smartphones have become journalist’s most important tool, and greatest enemy. Foreign correspondents now face competition from millions of ‘citizen journalists’ and publications need to find a way to manage thousands of tips, articles, photos and videos from an ever expanding army of unverified citizen reporters. And as the Sandy Stock Exchange debacle shows us, if done incorrectly this could lead to some terrible reporting.
So what does this new trend mean for major publications and will they be able to include citizen reporting as a part of their new business models?
Growing as a real organization
Citizen reporting is not a new phenomenon. First hand video footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and of police beating Rodney King in Los Angeles two decades later were both captured by passersby on the scene.
However, since smartphone technology has improved, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have developed allowing users to upload photos videos and even live feeds, citizen reporting is now becoming a major source for breaking news. Citizen reporting opens the door to contributions from billions of people around the world, who can record events occurring in real time, while adding local knowledge and anonymity in situations which might not be possible for traditional foreign correspondents.
Organizations like the Frontline Freelance Club and Reporters sans frontiers have developed, offering support and advice to citizen reporters, and also campaigning for more recognition, rights and salaries from leading publications themselves. These organizations argue that the risk posed to frontline reporters who place themselves in danger for journalism demands as many rights and as much recognition as offered to staff writers.
Integrity is the backbone of any respectable news outlet, and fact checking and source verification are a key part of journalists’ and editors’ roles. Misreporting can ruin careers and also lead to costly and time-consuming libel cases. There have been numerous examples of companies such as Apple and Sony suffering big stock losses due to ‘bogus’ citizen announcements sparking consumer panic.
The Frontline Freelance Club and Reporters San frontiers both expect their members to stick to a set of clearly defined rules related to safety and journalism ethics , but the decentralized nature of citizen reporting makes this hard to control and regulate.
Smartphones have opened the doors to first hand reporting to anyone with access to the internet, and with experts suggesting that by 2020 around 6.1 billion people will own internet ready handsets: this equates to floodgates waiting to be opened for major publications.
Huffington Post contributor Tyler Mahoney argues: “ The fourth estate no longer has a barrier to entry. A 140-character statement can go viral, get 'retweeted,' and be treated seriously, even though ten minutes of research would have proven the claim to be bogus. ”
How are publications responding
Leading publications are walking a fine line in terms of liability, and must include prose outlining that no risk should be taken when gathering content.
On the BBC news website, for example, a recent article about extreme weather in Haiti contained a footer stating: “ Have you been affected by Hurricane Matthew? Only if it is safe to do so, you can share your experience by emailing [email protected]. ” The site also offers different mediums including SMS, Whatsapp and Twitter for contributions.
Leading UK publication the Guardian released its ‘ Guardian Witness ’ allowing citizen journalists, to supply staff journalists with videos, photos and stories of any newsworthy event taking place, following in the footsteps of CNN iReport and ProPublica's Get Involved .
Problems to be solved
The advantage of ‘on the scene’ citizen reporting is the speed at which content can reach audiences, but this also poses a problem for publications. BuzzFeed actively encourages user contributions on a wide range of topics, and has taken citizen reporters like Mike Giglio on as staff writers. But Nick Denton, founder of recently bankrupted publication Gawker , argues that the site is more concerned with increasing traffic through ‘clickbait’ articles than producing valuable news stories.
Participatory journalism platforms use a “publish, then filter ” model rather than the traditional “filter, then publish” model”, however, this is not something leading publications which pride themselves on accuracy are ever going to accept.
To prepare themselves, publications will need to develop vetting systems powered by machine learning and AI which channel contributions on trending topics, and using tech to find the diamonds in the rough. Using tech similar to Rbutr , big data web crawl technology could be used to effectively ‘fact check’ citizen contributions automatically by browsing for contrary opinions online.
Publications also need to develop dashboards which allow them to quickly process different formats of content — from different devices and different types of files— which compress and format photos, videos and audio quickly so that they are ready to be published.
Less complicated systems that make profiles for citizen contributors, assessing the strength of their content and rating how much they can be trusted, would be a good way to speed up the approval process. It would facilitate making official agreements with citizen reporters who regularly contribute high quality, verifiable and most importantly newsworthy photos, videos and stories.
As access to technology inevitably improves, more and more submissions will originate from freelance and citizen reporters. The success of modern media companies relies on lightning speed adaption to the market, and placing the right content in front of their audiences wherever they are. While Buzzfeed might be slandered by other more traditional publications, they have a strong business model which appeals to consumers. It is up to other publications to find a way to include more citizen contributions, while keeping their integrity intact.
Amit Rathore is the founder & CEO of Quintype , a data-driven platform for publishers.