Citizen Journalism: Scourge or Saviour?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent

LAS VEGAS – “A group of several dozen ‘Occupy Las Vegas’ protesters camping on Clark County land located under the final approach to Runway 19 at McCarran International Airport today narrowly missed being injured when a 50 lb. slab of ‘blue ice’ reportedly landed within feet of their tents.

Blue ice is the frozen material formed by leaks in commercial aircraft lavatory waste tanks, a mixture of human waste and vivid blue liquid disinfectant that freezes at high altitude. The ice generally dissipates long before the aircraft lands, but there have been documented cases of blue ice clinging to aircraft surfaces until the aircraft reaches warmer air on approach to landing, then the ice may separate from the aircraft and fall to earth. According to witnesses, the slab fell to earth seconds after Air Force One passed overhead while landing.

Clark County Director of Aviation Randall Walker was immediately notified and dispatched airport personnel to the campsite, but witnesses report that the blue ice had melted by the time officials arrived leaving only a smelly brown residue.

Walker told INSIDE VEGAS that he is personally investigating the incident, and will communicate his findings to the President’s staff”.

This story was published by Canada Free Press. The story then spread like wildfire across internet blogs and forums as if it were an Associated Press story. If any of these citizen journalists had checked they would have discovered that the story was completely false. It was written by Steve Miller on his ezine ‘Inside Vegas’.

Cathy Scott discusses this in more detail in an article on where she notes that when Miller was contacted by the mainstream media about the story he was never asked if it was true. She criticizes Miller for not stating that the story was satirical. However, in Miller’s defense, doing so would have defeated the purpose. However, as Scott notes, regular readers know that Miller occasionally injects satire into his writing. The most important question that Scott asks is: “Shouldn’t citizen journalism sites verify the facts if they’re running something as sensational as this without knowing whether or not it’s true?”

Citizen journalists are appearing everywhere, as more and more people join the blogosphere. There are a number of highly regarded, and more importantly, regulated citizen journalism websites such as Australia’s Crikey, the Drudge Report, and The Onion. The latter features entirely satirical news stories, and explicitly mentions the fact. Apart from sites like these there are thousands of blogs, and other sites that declare themselves to be independent news sites. These are mostly run by people with little or no experience in journalism, they are completely unregulated (or self regulated), and as the example above shows, frequently unreliable as news sources. As Scott states it is vitally important that before someone claims that a news story is true they should check the facts as far as possible to ensure that it is. This is even more important when news stories can so quickly spread around the world via the internet.

An example of how easily ‘news’ can spread comes in the form of a Hubpages article that was circulating on Facebook during 2010. The Hubpages article claimed that a cure for cancer had been found but pharmaceutical companies refused to invest in it because they were unable to make money out of it, and that there was a media conspiracy to cover up news of the discovery. The only redeeming feature of the Hubpages article was that it provided a link to the source article. The source article on the University of Alberta website revealed to anyone who bothered to read it that the ‘facts’ prevented in the Hubpages article (and crucially, the claim that a cancer cure had been found), were for the most part, entirely false.

Around the time of the Australian Federal Election of 2007 a research project into citizen journalism was conducted by researchers in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology with the industry partners including the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Cisco Systems Australia and New Zealand, online publishers The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion), and public affairs think-tank, the Brisbane Institute. The research project “…demonstrated how the participatory model of social media could help shape political engagement in Australia”. In many ways the project proved successful as the site published 230 stories, some of which were featured in the mainstream media, and even in the Australian Government itself. Some important lessons learned by the researchers were the need for ‘moderators’ or managers to provide ‘seed content’ and edit submissions. Unsurprisingly, the majority of contributors were people already engaged politically. This need to focus on content, and especially its accuracy, is something citizen journalists need to constantly keep in mind.

Where citizen journalism does have an important role to play is in providing an independent news source is in regions where independent mainstream press is non – existent. Examples include countries such as those involved in the so – called ‘Arab Spring’. A good example is provided in Syria. An online Sydney Morning Herald article reports how Syrian activist Ausama Monajed runs The Syrian Revolution News Round-up from outside Syria. The Round-up provides a daily briefing of protests using eyewitness accounts and footage taken on mobile phones. The briefing is written in English, Arabic and French, and is then delivered to rights groups and the international media. The Round-up and other citizen journalist websites which provide similar functions are using social media sources such as Twitter and Facebook to bring important independent news coverage to the outside world. Sociologist Samir Khalaf, a professor at the American University of Beirut makes a very good point when he says: “Who is going to speak on behalf of those who are bereft of speech? This is where citizen journalism comes in…in an uprising that is all about citizenship”.


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