Effective citizen journalism requires training, engagement

By Mary Ellen Beatty

A giant asteroid threatening Earth made headlines and news feeds last week. But no one was more appalled than the news outlet responsible for the false report ― CNN.

BEWARD: Citizen journalism is great, as long as there’s engagement and proper training.

More specifically, the article was published on CNN’s iReport, which allows citizens to participate in the reporting process and help define the news by submitting news tips, stories, and photos. This is a noble cause for sure ― and one I fully support as director of the citizen journalism branch of the Franklin Center.

But iReport articles are “not edited, fact checked or screened” by CNN staff. They use the articles to get a pulse on public interest and only reprint the cream of the crop content for their more traditional news sites.

This arrangement, while appearing to empower readers, does a disservice to ambitious citizen journalists who are doing real reporting work in their communities. CNN isn’t responsible for anything published by citizens (including giant asteroids), but can take the credit when it’s convenient. That seems a bit one-sided from where I sit.

Let me bring us back down to Earth. If CNN iReport really wants to engage citizen writers (or benefit from their work), they should offer feedback and guidance on citizens’ submissions. A little education and training goes a long way.

CNN staff writers didn’t become reporters in one news cycle, and neither will citizens. They require fact checking and editing just like any journalist in a traditional newsroom. Urging citizens to post without giving them proper support is irresponsible– and it’s not a successful journalism model.

The reporting process works best when citizens and reporters work together. Smart citizens who are invested in their communities have great perspective and insight on local issues. But local reporters will never tap into this source if they are busy judging citizens’ grammar and etiquette. Similarly, citizens will never overcome asteroid-sized mistakes if they don’t embrace the expertise of seasoned sleuths.

CNN’s iReport is a good first step at welcoming citizens into the news process. But more needs to be done to show a symbiotic partnership rather than an opportunistic venture.

Contact Mary Ellen Beatty at Maryellen.beatty@franklincenterhq.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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