In 2007, a 57-year-old man named John Darwin reported himself to a police station as a missing person. Not only had this man been reported as missing five years earlier, but he was also officially ‘dead’. Darwin disappeared after a kayaking trip in the North Sea, and his wife was given a £25,000 life insurance settlement. The story was researched on google by a non-journalist and she found a photograph of Darwin and his wife that had been taken in 2006, four years after he had ‘died’, proving that he had faked his own death for money. Similarly, in 2009, Ian Tomlinson was killed after a police officer knocked him to the ground. Footage of the ordeal was caught on camera by an onlooker, who was filming the protests. PC Simon Harwood was found guilty of gross misconduct.
These are just a couple of examples of how crime cases have been brought to justice by non-journalists. Technology has given people the tools to make vital contributions to the work of journalism, but is this always a good thing?
Readers have been given a taste of what it is like to practice journalism and they don’t want to stop. ‘Today’s journalists are not sloppier than yesterday’s. Rather, readers are more demanding’, something that was suggested by John Kelly in Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold. As I discussed in a previous post, citizen journalists are not in it for the money. They are in it for the satisfaction they gain from their voices being heard, reputations being created and exposure of their writing.
But should newspapers be pleased about this?
Jane Singer argued that website interactivity ‘beefs up local coverage and boost website traffic’ in her research of Quality Control (2010). It also adds public interest to their stories – I know that I always have a nose at comments (which are often more entertaining than the article itself).
In addition to this, one of the most important factor of citizen journalists is that when they are at the ‘wrong place’ at the ‘right time’, they now have the tools to report. Almost 50% of journalists surveyed in Singer’s research agreed that on-the-scene reporting from users has proved to be extremely useful in the newsroom. Other uses that were agreed upon included coverage of local events (40%) and traffic and travel updates (46%), all of which need someone to be there at all times, a requirement that simply cannot be met by professional journalists.
However, user generated content (UGC) creates a chance for ‘insults, libel and downright rudeness.’ Websites are responsible for paying up, should any libellous comments be published. Newspapers also need to consider gatekeeping values that the professional journalists follow; the process of deciding what makes news. The internet obliterates this gatekeeping process, which is a procedure that arguably defines the origins of journalism.
This makes me wonder not what the future of journalism is, but what the new generation of journalists look like. If the values of gatekeeping continue to be lost online, will the origins of journalism be lost altogether? Gatekeeping ensures quality and legal news which is the least you would expect from the profession. It seems that everyone can be a publisher, but not everyone can be a journalist.