Whose news is it anyway?

“The venerable profession that is journalism finds itself at a rare moment in history, where for the first time, its hegemony as gatekeeper of the news is threatened by not just the new technology and competitors but, potentially by the audience that it serves,” write Bowman and Willis in a 2003 study on the state of the media.

The year is 2019. I am a BA Media and Politics graduate who took the courageous decision to pursue honours in journalism. Not a day goes by without coming across anxiety-inducing retrenchment announcements in the field or scrolling past social media slander about the state of journalism in the country.

Left with just three months until I join the job-seeking statistics, not only am I worried about future employment prospects, I am also becoming increasingly bothered by the rising levels of mistrust consumers have about the media.

It is said that all societies need information to strengthen the sovereignty of the citizenry but democratic societies have an even more critical need for information. The right to information not only empowers citizens to participate in decision-making and setting of the national agenda, it is necessary for transparency and accountability from those that have been tasked to lead.

Traditionally, the media would be the entity contracted to not only supply that information, but also provide a space for public discourse. But seemingly, with growing access to technology, citizen journalism has emerged as a phenomenon that is presenting a challenge to traditional newsrooms across the globe. We see this happening with journalists’ credibility being doubted and a rush to label alternate views as fake news.

A distinction should be made between the citizen who happens to be an eyewitness to an incident and an opinionista/blogger who has no formal training but publishes content as news. The former does not pose as much of a threat as the latter.

Essentially, the rise of citizen journalism means that there is a change in the traditional understanding of not only what constitutes news, but also who makes news.

We are now living in a time when the viewer is able to simultaneously take on the role of a user and producer.

How did we get here? In journalism classes we are taught that the process undertaken by journalists and mainstream media to determine what is newsworthy and the framing of content should be an independent process that is objective and isolated from any bias or prejudice.

Before we blame it all on technology, citizen journalism existed prior to the emergence of access to the internet. In a documentary on Journalism, a professor at Boston University, Chris Daly, claims that one of the first forms of this type of journalism began in the 1760s in the form of pamphlets that rebelled against the traditional forms of journalism that were prevalent at the time. The medium might have moved to electronic platforms such as YouTube and Twitter, but the intent remains the same. This goes to show that citizens always had something to say but just lacked the means to say it.

Before it all sounds like doom and gloom, not all is lost. I don’t think citizen journalism is capable of replacing mainstream journalism because it was born out of a need for inclusion and diversity in the range of issues that it covers and deems newsworthy. Citizen journalists simply want to be heard.

“Change is inevitable, change will always happen, but you have to apply direction to change, and that’s when it’s progress.” – Douglas Baldwin

It is clear that there is a need to reconcile a view that understands that citizen journalism is here to stay, and therefore needs to be understood and worked around. In support of this notion, Noor, in a paper titled Citizen Journalism vs Mainstream Journalism, calls it “a willingness to go beyond the idea that citizen and mainstream journalism are opposed to each other, and instead to consider them as “elements of an ecology of networked journalism”.

I foresee a range and scope of journalists and outlets, both professional and amateur, working together to contribute and form part of the news production process. That being said, there are basic journalistic ethics that exist in the profession that cannot be ignored, which contribute to the credibility of the mainstream media producers and, if the public arena is to expand to accommodate citizen journalists, then the same rules and principles should apply to citizen journalists as well.

Then maybe, just maybe, I will be optimistic about the future of my profession.