Citizen Journalism in Crime Reporting: Is it a Benefit or a Drawback?

The dissemination of user-generated content is ever-growing…

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As Pippa Norris puts it in Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Government, in the realm of news, “citizens use their own, self-managed media to become politically involved on their own terms”. Immersing themselves into many of the fundamental roles of a journalist, this is what we know as citizen journalism — and in recent years its engagement has skyrocketed.

Its rapid rise coincided with the increasing use of smart phones during the 2000s, broadening access to multiple technological functions at the click of a button. Cameras, speakers, recorders, the internet, to name a few. Everything a citizen journalist needs, packed into their back pocket.

Through this unique form of journalism, the general public take on an active role in news stories by providing user-generated content, gathering and distributing information through material such as images and videos, particularly on social media.

What makes it so unique you ask? To simply put it — the control it comes hand in hand with. As it is said in Understanding Citizen Journalism as Civic Participation, citizens find empowerment within choosing what to write, what to publish and what to deliver with no constraints. That’s every journalists dream, right?

Its impact within crime reporting

For the most part, in recent years I have understood the work of citizen journalists to be a great help in the reporting of crime. Many cases have gathered significant momentum on social media, leaving no stone left unturned in some of the most prolific and influential stories.

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Edwards et al found that ethnic minorities in America face a higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than their white counterparts. In these cases of police brutality, many go unreported on, hardly any are brought to trial, and even less result in a guilty verdict. So, can the work of citizen journalists help to counteract this?

On the 25th of May 2020, African American man George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes. Nearly two years on from his passing, his death has had an extreme impact on the racial climate in society, even being seen to have changed the world.

Yet arguably, it was the footage of this incident that led to the following outrage, protests, and eventually Chauvin’s conviction. Teenager Darnella Frazier bravely captured the moments that led to Floyd’s death, and was even prized a special journalism award by the Pulitzer Prize board for her courageousness.

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The initial Minneapolis Police Department’s statement said Floyd died from a “medical incident” during an interaction with officers. There was no mention of Chauvin’s involvement with Floyd’s death — specifically the fatal physical restraint. It is this information we have only come to know from Fraizer’s footage visually exposing what really happened.

Without this footage, the professional coverage, public response and judicial outcome of this case could have been completely different. Would we have seen the conviction of Chauvin? Would there still have been masses of political activism both on social media and in the community? Would we still be saying George Floyd’s name today?

If anything, Frazier’s role within documenting the murder of Floyd has shown just how powerful and beneficial citizen journalism can be. But what about the drawbacks?

A double-edged sword?

It has to be said, there are also many downsides and dangers of citizen journalism, and so it becomes a question of whether its use is a benefit, drawback, or both. So, let’s take a look at a few of the pros and cons

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It is difficult to come to an understanding of which side outweighs the other. We’ve seen the benefits of the impact of citizen journalism in the case of George Floyd, but there are many instances where it has become a hindrance even outside the world of crime; the public reporting of Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak for example.

Many professional journalists aren’t the keenest about citizens spontaneously becoming involved in journalism. A recent survey conducted by the Medill Media Industry found that 79.3% of journalists felt that social media had mostly a negative impact on journalism, and 94.3% believed that social media was to blame for the spreading of inaccurate news.

However, going back to the case of Floyd, it was the use of social media that was the driving force in the fight for justice, educating the masses, and plausibly getting Chauvin convicted of murder. Somewhere between 15 and 26 million people were involved in protests following Floyd’s death, all fighting for justice for victims of police brutality — and it call comes back to Fraizer’s footage.

It is not to deny the danger of one-sided stories filling social media as the aforementioned survey also found was a concern of journalists. But is this not somewhat the same danger we face with mainstream news institutions? Professional stories still have the same capability depending on how they are mediated and framed. So are we really at a greater risk?

As Melissa Wall implies in her book Citizen Journalism: Practices, Propaganda, Pedagogy, it may be because journalism itself becomes less secure with much of the power being held by the public, that is one of the main reasons many believe citizen journalism is more of an obstruction. Food for thought maybe?

The future of citizen journalism

Smart phones are getting more advanced, technology is only improving, and people are becoming even more socially and politically aware — so I think it’s safe to say that citizen journalism won’t be disappearing any time soon.

It is indeed a double-edged sword, and it may be a case of taking the good with the bad as our consumption of news on social media is certainly becoming the norm. But in the case of crime reporting, maybe citizen journalism is more helpful than what we think…

Despite all of the triumphs and pitfalls of this unique form of journalism, what must always be at the heart of reporting is the truth. That is what puts journalism at its best — and if citizen journalists can contribute towards this transparency, then long may it reign.

Thank you for reading! It would be great to hear what you think about citizen journalism in the comments. Is it helpful or a hindrance?

Be sure to keep up to date with my social media channels; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to catch my future blog posts and thoughts about the world of crime journalism!

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Ahone Lane

Ahone Lane

Final year BA English student at Bournemouth University, focussing on issues within the area of crime journalism.