Is Citizen Journalism more Effective than Traditional Journalism?

By Lily Young

In today’s society, devices and technology play a major role, not just in our lives at home (according to Federica Laricchia Statista, in 2020, the average person in Britain had access to nine or more connected devices), but in our lives at work as well. Now, it is almost impossible to find a job where at least a basic understanding of technology is not required. New forms of technology are finding their way into almost every field, bringing with them new solutions and methods. One particularly interesting area of work that modern technology is changing is policing and journalism. 

While most of us use traditional journalism (newspapers, radios, television) as our mainstream source of information, a new way of reporting and investigating has been discovered, and is growing in popularity. Citizen journalism is the collection, dissemination and analysis of information by the general public, especially by means of the internet. This could be sharing an image or using an image that has been uploaded to the internet to look into a specific event. An incident where citizen journalism was useful was in the case of the Shooting of Ashli Babbitt, a woman who was fatally killed during the storming of the Capitol in January 2021. Researchers created a timeline of her movements using her social media footprint, and mapped her location during the riot by finding videos showing her in the crowd and comparing background details to the building’s publicly available floor plan.

One organisation which specialises in citizen journalism is BellingCat, founded in 2014 by Eliot Higgins.  The name refers to an idiom ‘to bell the cat’, which originates from a famous fable by Aesop: ‘The Mice in Council’, and means to be brave enough to do something difficult if it will benefit you or a group of people. BellingCat is a small company of around 12, comprising investigators and journalists. The investigators analyse evidence that anyone can find through open-source material (eg. social media, google earth, etc.) and use it to help them solve crimes. A detailed report is posted for each case explaining how they gathered evidence and formed their hypothesis. 

A famous case that Bellingcat contributed to was the Salisbury Poisonings – identifying two suspects involved and revealing them to be undercover Russians from the GRU (The Soviet Military Intelligence). Evidence that they gathered included a passenger manifest showing that the two suspects booked their flights the day before their departure and double-booked flights on return dates, which seems to contradict a statement they made in an interview about having been planning to visit for a while. There was also a mysterious stamp on both passports in Russian, translating to “Do not provide any information”, which is reserved for under-cover Russian operatives of the state. A further breakthrough in the case came when a cryptic number on the passport was found to be a phone number. At least two reporters were able to call the number and speak to someone confirming that this was a ministry defence line. Bellingcat were also able to obtain documents proving that the number was the same as the Ministry of Defence telephone number where the GRU is based. This is just some of the evidence that they uncovered using internet files that any member of the public could access.

Although the Russian Embassy is convinced that BellingCat is an extension of Defence HQ (the Ministry of Defence in Britain), they are a completely independent and private company. They have many supporters, including traditional newspapers. The Spectator said, “They’ve proved not only more effective than other journalists but they have quite possibly outdone the West’s intelligence agencies too.”  The Guardian added, “BellingCat’s rise reveals something new about our digitally mediated times: spying is no longer the preserve of nation states – anyone with internet connection can do it. The balance between open and secret intelligence is shifting. The most useful stuff is often public.” Even a British security official stated that BellingCat was “way ahead of us on many things”. 

It goes without saying that citizen journalism has its advantages and disadvantages. It primarily deals with analysing photos and videos as evidence, which can be manipulated using photoshop and editing software. In addition, people aren’t restricted from uploading their own ‘evidence’ online. This has positive and negative aspects, as everyone is given a voice but unqualified people can share incorrect opinions, distracting the authorities and complicating researchers’ jobs. Anyone can post on social media at any time, which means that much more information can be published at a much faster rate, but it also means that anyone, even those without journalistic training, can post. As a result, evidence must be carefully sifted through to determine what is real and what is fake.

There are also positives and negatives to traditional journalism. Traditional journalists are trained professionals, which means they are trusted, held to higher standards and expected to adhere to certain rules. Traditional news companies are financially backed and therefore have the ability to cover stories globally. They can also gain access to a wider range of important people; as they are professional corporations whose journalists must follow codes of conduct, they are more likely to be granted interviews. Mainstream organisations have the financial power to distribute their news across multiple media (television, newspapers and radio, as well as the Internet). Mainstream news has also been around for much longer than the Internet and social media, so it has already built up a reputation for being trustworthy and appeals more to the older generation. However, many distrust the press as they believe reporters have the ability to manipulate information (such as interviews, etc). Traditional journalists have been known to abuse their power in the past. An example of this was the News Of The World phone hacking scandal of 2011. Select employees of the 168 year old paper had been illegally hacking into the phones of celebrities for many years, attempting to uncover stories. As a result, the paper was brought to trial and ultimately closed down. 

I believe that traditional journalism and citizen journalism both excel in different areas. Traditional journalism employs trained professionals that are generally trusted by the public. They also have the financial backing, reputation and mass-viewing that comes with mainstream media. This means they have more opportunities to report news globally. Citizen journalism provides some evidence that cannot be found using traditional methods . In the future, traditional journalists could adapt and modernise their methods, and perhaps laws could be put into place for citizen journalists to ensure that all evidence being posted is valid. The BBC already uses open-source materials to fact check many stories that are widely circulating in the public realm. If these two branches of journalism learn from each other, we could ensure a widely viewed and respected media that is discovering new and effective ways to publish high quality, trustworthy news stories.

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