Numbers boosted by citizen journalism, but at the cost of objectivity?

Living in the Internet age has fostered a desire, some would say a need, for immediacy. The success of social media sites like Twitter (more than 100 million users) and Facebook (more than 800 million users), that enticed users in to a world of instant information, is proof that we want news. Now.

It has become commonplace for a Twitter or Facebook subscriber to post photos and videos of their personal lives within seconds of an event happening. These images are open to the world and are available to anyone with access to that person’s page or news feed.

In response to this immediate news phenomenon, some media outlets have decided to use the footage captured by their viewers in real time and incorporate it into the network’s news stories. The public who offer these photos and videos have been dubbed citizen journalists – a term that could be interpreted negatively.

Large news networks like CNN (iReport), CBS (EyeMobile) and Fox News (uReport), have all adopted this media strategy, allowing their viewers to post videos and images as the news happens. By harnessing the power of new technology and the public’s access to breaking news events, these media networks might just be creating a great business model.

Not only are viewers seeing real-time footage and images on their screens, they’re also being encouraged to get involved themselves – greatly boosting viewership numbers as well as internet hits while the pseudo-reporters get to see their footage online and affiliated with a major news network.

There are also benefits to be found in the accessibility that the public has to breaking news. A network’s ratings will undoubtedly increase if they are able to offer images from around the globe – as soon as the news breaks. A February 3 article on the website showed images from the Syrian protests, all taken by a citizen journalist. This photo is an indication of the quality of the images being sent to news sites.

(A citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and released Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS HANDOUT PHOTO Photo: Local Coordination Committees In Syria / LOCAL COORDINATION COMMITTEES IN)

This may be a particularly ingenious strategy to boost viewership and images, but some critics are questioning the ethics behind using the audience’s footage.

By presenting images from citizens on the news, media outlets are allowing a certain perspective or subjectivity to come into the news. In a recent article by Sean Captain on the site, one particular citizen journalist who shot footage from the Occupy Oakland protests and who goes by the Twitter name @OccupyFreedomLA, said that she goes by the title of “an activist first and a journalist second.” But also added, “If I see someone antagonizing the police…I’ll shoot it.”

This raises the question, is footage from a citizen journalist always trustworthy? What if these journalists, who have no obligation to the cardinal rule of objectivity, present their images from a certain perspective in order to achieve a personal goal?

These are questions that must be considered by the news networks before the footage or images are published under the “objective reporting” banner.

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