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How Citizen Journalism is Transforming the Media Landscape

Posted by Steve Hulford on 10.09.11

CTV MyNews contributor Adrian Geromimo captured this photo of a truck on fire after being overturned by rioters following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday, June 15, 2011.

September 10th, 2011, Toronto -  The battle to control the hearts and minds of readers, viewers and listeners has long raged in the media world. Media outlets have fought to out-scoop each other with ever-more tantalizing, intriguing and even controversial headlines.

As the recent scandal over alleged phone-hacking amongst journalists at U.K.-based News International publications such as The Sun and News of the World have proven, the more salacious the headline, the more papers (or advertisements), a media outlet can sell.

But in recent years, developments in rich media-sharing technologies via the Internet have helped news outlets turn to the public for help in telling the very stories that shape their lives. Citizen journalism—which may take a variety of forms from a Tweet-ed report from the middle of a riot, to an ordinary citizen’s uploaded video of a major weather event—have changed the way people interact and consume news.

It's also changed the way the media covers events.

Take the 'Arab Spring' uprisings, which focused the world's attention on the stability of dictatorships across North Africa earlier this year. When news began breaking of a tsunami-like shift in public sentiment in the region, it was largely video content emailed or uploaded to news media websites, or social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which breathed life into what would eventually become a historic series of events. From there, defiant citizens used citizen journalism as a tool to highlight the abuses of local dictators, prove their dedication to social and political change to the outside world, and remind that the movement was not to be short-lived in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

While news outlets deployed crews and correspondents to cover the developing story, nightly television broadcasts and news websites leaned heavily on sometimes-unverifiable citizen journalist content to tell the story. A conundrum soon emerged in newsrooms around the world: could this new type of content be trusted?

The journalistic consensus that emerged was yes, the content could and would air—but with cautious disclaimers reminding that in many cases, the source of the content was unverifiable. Even when the news organizations's own crews emerged on the scene to cover the story, citizen journalist content was broadcast alongside professional reports.

But it may have even greater implications.

As the thousands of hours of uploaded video from the post-Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver proved earlier this year, citizen journalist-produced content does more than boost network ratings and provides journalists with new perspectives on breaking stories-- it offers clear social benefits. In that case, videos and photos helped Vancouver police apprehend dozens of rioters who otherwise may have eluded arrest and prosecution as police struggled to maintain order.

Citizen journalism has not only changed the way media outlets cover the news, it's improved it. More importantly, it's here to stay. Here's why:

It's easy: Continuing developments in mobile technology have allowed citizen journalism to grow, making it easier, faster and cheaper to produce and upload content to news media websites. That ability will only improve over time, making citizen journalism and even more indispensable tool in a reporter's arsenal.

It drives ratings and saves money: In August 20, 2009, CP24's coverage of a major storm which saw funnel clouds touch down across Southern Ontario, drew a record 1.2 million viewers. That coverage was almost entirely facilitated by jaw-dropping citizen journalist-produced videos of blackened skies and threatening clouds ripping across the province. A critical point for budget-conscious media organizations, that type of content is free and in many cases exclusive, uploaded only to their websites. That represents huge potential annual savings as news channels and websites seek to enhance coverage in the face of constant revenue pressures.

It drives engagement: A recent electrical storm that swept across the Greater Toronto Area saw huge spikes in traffic across the websites of news outlets such as CTV Mynews, CP24 and The Weather Network. Photo and video uploads experienced a 132% increase, photo and video viewing spiked by 232%, while the average conversion time for photos clocked in at an impressive five seconds and four minutes for video.

It's not a threat to traditional media: As the Vancouver Riots and Arab Spring demonstrate, citizen journalist-produced content can help reporters and producers augment and complement their coverage, without usurping it. While professional journalists must still perform their due diligence to ensure the validity of the content's sources, these often stunning reports can provide fast, comprehensive insight from the proverbial heart of the storm, just as history unfolds.

It's what people want to see: As social media continues to gain in popularity and an increasing number of people upload their personal content to sites such as Facebook and YouTube, sharing and experiencing content across media has become an expectation. People demand to interact with the news just as they expect to interact with friends on Twitter.

In short, citizen journalism has become as much a part of everyday life in the 21st century as huddling around the TV to watch the nightly news was in the late 20th. Expect our reliance and commitment to this type of content to grow exponentially in the years ahead.

To arrange an interview to discuss citizen journalism and its wide-ranging implications for media outlets worldwide with Filemobile chief creative officer Steve Hulford, contact:

Chris Atchison, Shockwave Strategic Communications


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