As newsrooms continue to cut back on staff, citizen journalism continues to grow. Starting this month, Fox Television Stations has begun employing citizen journalists and is the first major media outlet to do so, according to an article in the New York Post.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a citizen journalist is someone outside of the news business who does the kind of reporting that was traditionally done by professionals. Some citizen journalists analyze, report and disseminate news through their own online outlets.
Fox has partnered with Fresco News, a crowd-sourced news startup that has signed up hundreds of citizen journalists in cities across the country. Once you sign up, Fresco says it “notifies you about nearby breaking news events when news outlets need photos and videos for their coverage. When a news outlet downloads or uses your photo or video, you get paid instantly!”
This is quite a change from the “old days” of traditional journalism, and I believe it is a positive one. Audiences that in the past only received information increasingly have opportunities to engage and participate. While a letter to the editor used to be the primary way to agree with or challenge something written in the local paper, today articles that appear online as well as in print often give readers a chance to add comments.
There also are more ways for readers or viewers with expertise on a particular topic to be available as a source to answer questions and/or provide insight. Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is one example of a resource that connects journalists looking for sources with people who are interested in sharing expertise in exchange for publicity. (Bringing qualified leads from reporters seeking sources directly to one’s inbox is every PR person’s dream.)
But citizen contributions are different than having citizens reporting news. With social media, blogs have made such reporting possible—and empowered average people in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. Now, if the news media ignore a story, one or more bloggers can cover it and create a buzz online. Sometimes they can even shame reporters into covering stories that otherwise would have gone unreported. Or, if the reporting is biased, social media can quickly get out corrective facts and documentation.
In other cases, citizen journalists can get to the scene quicker than a news crew, or add extra arms and legs to the reporting team.
“News consumers generally receive a single angle to a story, because news outlets almost always assign one camera or one reporter to any one news scene,” said John Meyer, the 21-year-old founder of Fresco. “But we’re already seeing video on TV from three or four Fresco contributors who are covering the same protest, which adds a new dimension to how stories are presented.”
One example cited in the Post article was a March 7 pre-dawn fire. “Fox 29 sent out a Fresco alert about a fire in Moorestown, Pa. — a 20-minute ride from the station. The station instantly received ‘great video of a huge fire’ . . . whereas crews dispatched by its competitors were lucky to get ‘smoking embers’ by the time they arrived.”
This naturally raises some questions:
- Will citizen journalists be perceived to have the same level of credibility as traditional journalists?
- With surveys showing a decrease in trust in the news media, could citizen journalists actually be seen as being more fair and objective?
- How will busy news outlets verify the authenticity of photos and videos?
- Who will bear the brunt of legal actions brought against a citizen journalist?
- What will this trend mean for public relations professionals?
To this last question, for the purpose of this post, I will refine it even further to ask how the trend toward citizen journalism will impact ad agency PR.
The short answer is I believe it will broaden opportunities for agencies and their clients to become sources for stories. As newsroom staff shrink in size, being available to provide expertise and credible information to reporters who are already stretched will become increasingly valuable. Agencies also need to expand their relationships to include citizen journalists who regularly contribute content to media outlets.
Today there are more opportunities than ever to not only have your voice heard, but also to engage and even shape news coverage.