Is collaboration the key to making the most out of the relationship between citizen journalists and those professionally trained? 

What should the relationship be between “citizen journalism” and traditional journalistic professionalism?

As a question often asked, this was the topic of a panel at a UNESCO conference last week, as Hannah Vinter reported at editorsweblog.org.

Vinter said some main points that were discussed included the need for professionals to rigorously fact-check information given to them by citizen journalists, but that collaboration between the two groups was key in achieving thorough news coverage. Vinter writes:

According to [head of Al Jazeera social media Riyaad] Minty, one way to ensure accurate information from citizen journalists is to build strong relationships with trusted sources. "Don't wait until something's trending on Twitter before you report it," Minty advised. At Al Jazeera, he said, "getting in early and building these relationships is absolutely pivotal to what we're done".  

Minty also stated that Al Jazeera also uses experts with the right language skills and local knowledge to verify citizen contributions. In the end, he said, only a small proportion of citizen journalism submissions are broadcast by Al Jazeera: of the 16,000 videos that came to the news organisation during 11 days of Egyptian revolution, less than 300 or 400 made it to TV screens.

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Of course, the idea of citizen journalism and the debate around its role in the industry is nothing new. In 2008, David Silverberg wrote that citizen journalism goes as far back as 2004, when citizens with cameras captured the aftermath of the Asian tsunami. Silverberg also said that traditional news needed to embrace citizen journalism in order to make the most of the participatory elements of Web 2.0; Online news could no longer be passive, he said.

So, while some news organizations are making a conscious effort to engage users more often, the question invitably is raised that asks if the era of participation and citizen journalism threatens the role of professionals? In an interview with Lisa Lynch for J-Source, Alfred Hermida, UBC professor and co-author of the book Participatory Journalism, talked about the relationship between citizen journalists and those who are professionally trained:

There’s long been this idea of the mythical citizen journalist, but it hasn’t turned into a reality. I think what’s happened instead is that we’ve seen that citizens can indeed perform acts of journalism, but in fact they’re doing a fragment of the actual work a journalist does. They might be taking a picture, they might be reporting on something happening in front of them, they might be sharing a link, they might be editing an entry in Wikipedia. But the idea that you’re going to have a mass public who are going to do what journalists do hasn’t really transpired except in very specific circumstances.

What do you think? Is collaboration the key to making the most out of the relationship between citizen journalists and those professionally trained?