Citizen journalist Frankie Roberto wanted to find out more about what separates professional reporters from amateur enthusiasts such as himself - so he gave up a week's holiday to spend time in the BBC News website offices. What did he find?
As part of an experiment to try and discover more about "citizen journalism", I spent a week at the BBC News website, talking to their journalists and writing some of my own stories. As I mentioned at the start, there are a few activities that have all been dubbed citizen journalism.
The simplest is when eyewitnesses or passers-by take photos or videos relating to a news event and then have these published - either online or sometimes in print. This wasn't something I could particularly take part in during the week, as much of it relies on the luck of someone being in the right place (or sometimes, the wrong place) at the right time. However, I could spend some time observing how these get generated.
The BBC News website attracts quite a lot of user photo submissions, partly because they ask for them, and partly perhaps because the website is high profile and is the first place that people might think of to send their photos to. During the week I was there, we saw photos sent in of summer solstice celebrations and the 'balloon orchestra', as well as some World Cup photos. The popular photo-sharing site Flickr had quite a few of these photos too, some of which made their way onto the collaboratively-edited Wikinews website and the news website NowPublic.
An interesting question over these types of photos is over copyright and how they can be shared between news organisations. People retain their copyright over photos sent in to the BBC, and get a credit, but the BBC won't generally pass the pictures on to other organisations (other than its international partners). This is probably the case for most other mainstream news websites and newspapers who get sent photos. They presumably would all want to try and use the photos to gain an advantage over their competition. This can make it tricky for smaller publications to get hold of the photos though, and some people sending in the photos may want to allow them to be used by anyone who wants to. Photos uploaded to Flickr can be licensed under a Creative Commons licence, allowing them to be widely distributed, and the website Scoopt acts as an agency for those who want to commercially exploit their photos, but perhaps sites like the BBC should consider asking contributors whether they'd want to allow their photos to be used elsewhere at the outset.
ON THE SPOT REPORTING
Another facet of citizen journalism I looked at was in citizens reporting their own stories. This kind of 'original reporting' is what you'd imagine journalists doing quite often, but there's no reason why anyone can't do it, whether they stumble across a story or go investigating for it. The BBC website has a 'your stories' section, but of course you can't guarantee that your story will get told. Although sites like the BBC and your local newspaper might get you a wider audience, personal blogs are a natural outlet for this kind of story, and allow you to tell it in your own words. The ease of this kind of publishing may well increase this type of activity, and news outlets already have to try and keep a bit of an eye on the 'blogosphere' to see what stories are being told.
During my week, I did some of this kind of reporting by firstly going to watch the England match in a cinema - which might not be a major news story but did at least provide an interesting alternative in reporting how fans were watching the game. I also did a couple of interviews with people taking on projects that I found interesting - the BBC's Creative Archive project and a project to create a million pound movie using 50,000 personal donations. Interviews are quite an easy way for people to reveal stories, and are one form that can be conducted via e-mail or instant messenger quite easily (although phone is useful too).
Interestingly, Wikinews quite regularly does an interview where anyone can send in questions, which allows it to be more collaborative. Even the Independent newspaper has started doing this.
Finally, perhaps the most advanced form of citizen journalism is where a community of users works together to make an alternative news website. The point might be to report on a different kind of news, or for a different audience, or to try and be as unbiased as possible, or to provide a news source that can be freely copied. I'm not going to use that hackneyed phrase 'by the people...' but these communities do enable news to be perhaps more open to scrutiny.
For sites like Wikinews, lots of these stories are created by, essentially, summarising the story from looking at several other news stories. Whilst this re-writing might feel a bit like cheating or being unoriginal, using secondary sources is nothing new, and being able to see the 'newswires' whilst at the BBC showed that quite a lot of content is learned of firstly from other agencies.
Where the skill of the journalist comes in is in being able to extract the most important information and writing it in a way which conveys these facts in an order that is relevant and makes sense. Journalists get the training and practice to be able to do this speedily every day, but it's perhaps not too difficult to learn, and allowing other people to edit and improve your work can help overcome sloppy writing or typos.
One of the big advantages that newsrooms have is being surrounded by people you can share ideas with or ask for help on. Internet communities might provide similar support, but it often wouldn't be nearly as instant, and the lack of a face-to-face presence might make it harder for people to feel motivated enough to really craft their work.
So far, it has really been the big news events that have brought people together to share and compile news online - on these occasions, it's perhaps the ability to form a community as much as the news content that brings people together. I think people are increasingly seeing news as a shared resource - one that can act as an anchor for talking around and an archived history to look back on. The BBC, with its public sector status and worldwide popularity, plays a big part in this role, fuelled by the increasing use of technologies like RSS feeds which let other sites display the headlines. Community driven, citizen-generated news sites surely have a role to play too though, and this can only grow as communities build and trust increases. It's no longer just the big companies that are providing the news.
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