REALITY CHECK

You might be a citizen journalist. Is that bad?

Social media-bred journos have the zeal but lack ethical, technical skills

In Summary

• Citizen journalism fills the gap left by mainstream media and censorship

• The problem is a lack of professionalism, which calls for training

Illustration of communication with a network
Illustration of communication with a network
Image: PIXABAY

If you provide regular news updates to the public through a blog, a social media channel or a website, you qualify to be called a citizen journalist, though you may not think of yourself that way.

Citizen journalism is at least one positive outcome of the 21st-century social media revolution. Citizen journalism consists of people sharing news, images and videos from their communities, whether that's an urban residential estate, a village, a subcounty or even a county.

In Kenya, citizen journalism specialises in posting breaking news of tragedies, employment, immunisation drives, school bursary applications and local politics through social media. There often is a bit of comedy with the usual popular topics, such as cheating in relationships, religion and politics.

News outlets run by individuals are filling an important gap in society because mainstream media is better suited for national news coverage. Without mainstream media, it would be impossible for the average person to know what's happening in the rest of the country or the world at large.

Mainstream media does not report occurrences that might be considered trivial, such as a leaking sewer pipe in a particular residential area or an increase in burglaries, but this type of information is very relevant to people living in the affected areas.

In environments where poor infrastructure, minimal access to technology and small-scale economies impede the creation or sustainability of mainstream independent media, and in countries where repressive governments limit the ability of professional journalists to operate freely, citizen journalists are filling the gaps
Prof Susan Moeller

NO TRAINING

Experts point out that citizen journalism is mostly done by individuals who have no training in professional journalism. Indeed, digital technology has enabled audiences to participate in news gathering and dissemination at a very low cost (social media is mostly free to use).

Prof Susan Moeller, who compiled a report on citizen journalism for the Center for International Media Assistance, suggests that citizen journalists may turn out to be the most potent force for creating, supporting and building democratic societies.

"In environments where poor infrastructure, minimal access to technology and small-scale economies impede the creation or sustainability of mainstream independent media, and in countries where repressive governments limit the ability of professional journalists to operate freely, citizen journalists are filling the gaps," Moeller says.

Noting that citizen journalists "often have no formal journalistic training", Moeller says both traditional and citizen journalists need to know how to manage technology, understand the needs and demands of their audiences and sift through all the information coming at them.

Considering that the modern newspaper first appeared at least 400 years before journalism was taught in colleges, one could reasonably argue that citizen journalism is older than professional journalism.

Two Kenyan media professionals, Prof George Ogola and newspaper editor Mike Owuor, jointly point out that Kenya has always had a "broad range of vibrant alternative sites for public expression and deliberation" outside the formal media structures.

"Citizen journalism, as one of these alternative expressive forms, has been instrumental in ensuring executive accountability and public participation in national debates," they wrote in the book 'Participatory Politics and Citizen Journalism in a Networked Africa'.

The two warn about citizen journalism gradually being hijacked by state actors who are competing with ordinary citizens to control the flow of information. Cash payments and promises of jobs in the public service may induce prominent citizen journalists to push pro-government narratives on social media.

Research shows that social media and the citizen journalism that comes with it are increasingly taking a prominent place in the lives of Kenyans. Survey results published by Radio Africa Limited in November 2023 showed that Kenyans were spending more time on social media than on radio and television.

The survey, titled 'Kenya Media Research 2023', revealed that Kenyans were spending an average of 2 hours, 24 minutes a day on social media. Radio came in second at 2 hours 10 minutes a day.

Interestingly, Kenyans were spending almost as much time video streaming as they were spending watching television. The survey found the average amount of time spent on online video streaming was 2 hours, 4 minutes, while the figure for television was 1 hour 59 minutes. It should be noted that live video is a popular channel among citizen journalists due to the lower costs of data.

TRUTH OR LIES?

The fact that most citizen journalists lack professional training poses challenges in terms of their credibility. Quite often, information from citizen journalists can be one-sided, depending on the beliefs or affiliations of the persons posting it.

The danger here is that the public often cannot tell the difference between facts and the opinion of the person presenting the information, especially if the individual has a large number of followers. The public assumes that the more popular an individual is on social media, the more likely he or she is telling the truth.

Most citizen journalists have good intentions but the lack of training can hinder them from getting the full details of a story. For example, a citizen journalist walking along a street and coming across an interesting event will want to publish it but might not know what questions to ask.

He or she may not have access to figures of authority who may give accurate details, such as the local police commander. Furthermore, lots of people think they are good photographers simply because they own smartphones, but taking high-quality pictures is a skill that must be learnt.

The Media Council of Kenya recently told citizen journalists that they should understand data protection to avoid getting into trouble with the law. Data protection laws affect how personal information about individuals can be used.

"Before obtaining any information, your safety and respect for people's privacy should be paramount. Maintaining objectivity and fairness to your subjects is a practice that you should exercise to keep yourselves out of problems," Maureen Mudi, MCK's regional coordinator in Mombasa, advised human rights activists.

"It is important to understand citizen journalism and follow the rules that govern your line of work. Make sure you fact-check information before posting."

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