User-generated news projects continue to flourish and compete directly with mainstream media. Recent developments in the world of citizen journalism underscore both the promise and the pitfalls of this emerging field.
The global news site Allvoices (“the first open media site where anyone can report from anywhere,” according to their banner) is upping the ante by offering cash incentives for popular news stories. Allvoices users who submit articles gathering 100,000 page views over six months will receive $1,000, and a million page views in the same period will net the author $100,000.
Meanwhile, Mediabistro reports that CNN’s three-year-old citizen journalism offshoot iReport is gaining traction, with “85,000 people registered as ‘reporters.’” The site’s “watershed moment” came in April 2007 when it ran a cell-phone video of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Finally, Global Voices passes along news of YouTube’s citizen journalism contest, which is soliciting three-minute videos “about someone in your community you believe should be known by the rest of the world.”
I’m all for the proliferation of diverse alternatives to the mainstream media, and citizen journalism looks like it’s here to stay, for better or worse. iReport provides a repository for eyewitness news and user videos, and YouTube’s video contest is an intriguing experiment. But the flaw in Allvoices’ incentive model seems obvious: To what lengths will people go in order to rack up page views for that cash reward? How will Allvoices ensure the credibility of its stories? If a winning story is revealed to be false, but the page views still add up, does the author still get the money? The scheme is reminiscent of Gawker Media’s business model, which also raises ethical questions.
Even when tenacious amateur journalists with good intentions place themselves on the front lines of an event—rather than, say, snarking from afar à la Gawker—they can’t always be counted upon to produce accurate stories. At Open Democracy, Evgeny Morozov provides a thorough commentary on citizen journalists’ coverage of the Russia-Georgia conflict. While mainstream news organizations scrambled to get reporters to the Caucasus in the conflict’s first days, native bloggers began filing regular dispatches. But problems quickly emerged, Morozov argues. The first was trust: News reports have appeared on blogs with little or no credibility or previous reporting history. Furthermore, internet access and technological resources are scarce in the region, and average citizens lack the budget necessary to capture quality video footage.
None of these shortcomings are likely to spell the end of citizen journalism, however, and that’s a good thing. In the coming years, methods of amateur reporting will no doubt be refined, the kinks ironed out, sound practices developed. Cash incentives like the ones offered by Allvoices are probably not a good idea, but that conflict of interest is not unique to amateur journalism—it’s no secret that the corporate media world is full of people placing profit ahead of journalistic integrity. Yes, there are problems created by such a huge and diverse range of enterprises in citizen media, but the cream will rise to the top, as user-driven media hubs like the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Citizen Media have already demonstrated.