Whether you have seen it, lived it or have contributed to it, citizen journalism has bathed us in an insurmountable amount of information. It is up to us to decipher and use it.

What Is Citizen Journalism?

Citizen journalism is defined as the collection and analysis of information from the general public, especially through the internet. This definition, however, is interpreted differently from person to person, and can take on beneficial or disruptive angles.

At this point, almost any adult has a smartphone with a camera and recording capabilities, so what distinguishes these people from other news sources, like trained journalists?

Well, nothing really. We all are able to spread information instantly through constantly evolving digital means. Anyone can take out their phones and record during a protest, or document their first visit to a new restaurant. It is up to the internet and viewer to connect the dots and create stories based on the fragments they are given.

Causing Trouble

To some extent, gathering information from the public causes a bias in what's presented, which is then channeled to observers who have consumed this bias. This, as we have come to call it, is the ‘fake news’ the community fears, yet falls victim to. With increased usage of social media comes an increase in both helpful and harmful information being spread through communities.

Michael Kilian, executive editor of the Democrat and Chronicle, detailed an example of how this type of reporting can be harmful.

“You can report things that are true, but not put them in proper context, or sensationalize them so much that it starts to distort [people’s] perceptions of reality,” Kilian said.

While working in Maryland some years ago, there was a citizen journalist who reported crime while listening to a police scanner. So much crime was being reported in one area that residents were under the impression they were living in an incredibly dangerous area. The reports drew from bias in the listeners and created the idea that the crime was heavily from minority groups, which in reality was not the case.

Is It All Bad?

Community-based journalism isn’t all bad though. In some cases, it can bring in a sense of community. In the case of the Daniel Prude and the Black Lives Matter protests in Rochester, citizen journalism played a huge role in spreading the word.

Martin Hawk, a documentary filmmaker and photographer, documented the protests on his social media as they occurred. He spoke on the impact of having hundreds of people taking in and releasing information on the same event has had on the public.

“The less filters something goes through, the closer you can get to the truth,” Hawk said.

“The less filters something goes through, the closer you can get to the truth”

Hawk believes that this type of reporting is necessary, as it gives narrative to the events. It shows that there are so many sides to the same coin.

While social media has been growing increasingly more polarizing, in the case of citizen journalism, more is better. Multiple angles from the same event can help to grow an entire picture. Multiple reviews of a new restaurant or shop can help increase traffic. Watching videos from protests can help others better understand what to expect and how to be prepared.

Coverage in the Media

For many, social media is how information is gathered and viewed now. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok have cast shadows over daily news networks and established channels of information. Through these platforms, anyone can share their opinions, experiences and what they think is true.

“We are all the sum of our experiences,” Kilian stated.

Relaying those experiences and information can help keep larger corporations and organizations accountable for their actions. This example is amplified in the police brutality, seen on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement. The information found on newspaper headlines and television depicts a much different story than the one told on the side of the movement — where citizens filmed the injustice firsthand.

There have been other examples of crimes which were dismissed by authorities and later solved by communities over the internet. "Don't F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer" on Netflix is a documentary detailing this type of story.

This changes the game of journalism in a lot of cases. Some broadcasters and journalists feel threatened by the rise of community-aided journalism, while others use it to their advantage.

The Goal

So how do you know what’s true and what’s not? A lot of this comes down to credibility. What other work has someone outputted that creates the notion that their information is reliable? Checking sources and doing further research is always the best option for avoiding ‘fake news’.

"We are all the sum of our experiences"

Journalism takes on many different styles, so finding the best way to back up and convey information may be difficult. For many like Kilian, the idea is that journalism should benefit the community.

“The best journalism is community service,” Kilian said.

We need to keep asking ourselves basic questions; are we providing information for people? Are we serving the community? Are we holding our leaders accountable? Are we focusing on small businesses, or helping people understand upheaval?

Hawk stated that inner conflict is a marker of engaging information.

“The best journalism, and the best art, is able to spark that inner turmoil a little bit,” Hawk said. “At the end of the day if you are asking more questions, that means you have more information than you previously did.”

Just take a look at what stories are trending on social media generally. Everyday you hear about something that involves suffering of some sort; death, abuse or targeted crime. These stories, as awful as they are, draw attention from the public through shared fear and bring awareness to these issues. These stories are flooded with videos and details that come from the public and push the information to the masses. You can be a part of relaying this data which gives power to the individuals who provide it. All it takes is your phone.