From Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalism


Citizen Journalism: (n.) The participation by citizens in gathering, analyzing and distributing news articles, images, editorials whether independently or participating in an online news site. (from

The most recent example of witnessing citizen journalism in action was when the news broke of a frenzied hunt for the two ‘Boston bombing’ suspects three days after the catastrophic marathon. The first time I heard of it was when independent journalist Seth Mnookin (@sethmnookin) tweeted this:


After that, the sleepy neighbourhood of Watertown became a war zone, with FBI tanks roving the otherwise innocent streets. The Twittersphere erupted with tweets from journalists in the vicinity and from locals witnessing the most horrific scene the town had ever seen. I spent the afternoon F5-ing my Twitter news feed and obtained a fly-on-the-wall experience I’ve never had before with news reporting.


The only issue is the credibility and accuracy of citizen journalist accounts on Twitter. Are they more trustworthy than traditional news sources? Hayes et al. divide journalistic credibility into three elements: authenticity, accountability and autonomy. By using the Twitter reporting on the hunt for the suspects of the Boston bombings as an example, we can look at this further.

What makes news (authen)tic(k)?

Hayes et al. state that authenticity derives from the source. In other words, journalists can prove that what they are saying is credible by mentioning who they are working for. This “ready-made reputation” should make readers trust what they say, which is different for autonomous citizen journalists who have to build up their reputation “word by word”.

It’s difficult to generalise who is more credible, but there are definitely some great bloggers that are setting the right example. Journalist Mnookin for instance proved to be extremely authentic whilst reporting on the events leading up to the capture of one of the Boston bombing suspects. During the night, he tweeted:

This is classic I’d rather be late and right scenario. It doesn’t matter who’s first by five minutes; it does matter if bad info is given out.

Mnookin went from 10,000 to 30,000 followers within one day. What we’ve learned: authenticity is rewarding.

Secure your account-ability

Then there’s the issue of transparency: how do journalists back up their viewpoints? Hayes’ answer: ‘personal disclosure’ and ‘evidentiary support’. I believe this is the same for both traditional and citizen journalists, as no-one is going to believe a word you say if you can’t back it up (insert source here).

During the horrendous night in Watertown, it seemed as if citizen journalists on Twitter could be held more accountable than traditional news media. This may be due to the increasing pressure to break a story by news editors, but it did backfire for many news organisations. Take The New York Post, that ran a cover with two men who were supposedly the suspects…only they weren’t. It seemed that Twitter found the suspects before traditional media could even make up their minds.


Auto(nomy) Pilot

When I was following the unraveling of the shoot-out in Watertown, I didn’t bother to even look at my favourite news sources, but I rather stuck to Twitter. And when I stumbled across Mnookin’s account, I didn’t even have to look further as I felt he reported in an honest, credible and trustworthy manner. Something I search for when reading news, and funnily enough I tend to get it most from tweeters and bloggers.

Mnookin stated the following on his own reporting:

 A thing I tried to do was as often as possible remind people that what they were getting from me was a sort of instantaneous, unedited snapshot of what was going on. And I tried to remind them that even if I was reporting something as being said to me by a police officer, that didn’t necessarily mean that it was going to end up being true, as was the case when they thought that they had a second suspect in custody and it turned out they hadn’t.

Even though many scholars argue gate-keeping processes aren’t in place with citizen journalists, it seems like their self-regulation tends to be more productive.

The verdict: the reader wins

In the end, we can see that both traditional and new media have their strengths and weaknesses. All in all, they are attempting the same thing: unravelling the truth. And in the end, we should take everything we read with a pinch of salt, regardless of the source. In a perfect world, traditional and citizen journalists should work together to reveal the truth, merging their strengths to report satisfyingly in any situation.

One worthy example of this is The Guardian, which is taking the lead in milking out the amount of smart phone users in the UK with their new app, Guardian Witness. The users of the app can share their photos and stories, add to news as it breaks, or propose an idea for a news story.

Where do you read about breaking news stories? Do you trust bloggers and/or tweeters? What do you think makes a good news story? Write your opinion on citizen journalism below!

Related articles:


Hayes, A. S., Singer, J. B., Ceppos, J. (2007). Shifting Roles, Enduring Values: The Credible Journalist in a Digital Age.  Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 22(4), 262–279.

Lewis, S. C. , Kaufhold, K.  & Lasorsa, D.L. (2010). Thinking about citizen journalism: The philosophical and practical challenges of user-generated content for community newspapers. Journalism Practice, 4(2), 163–179.


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