Why Be a Citizen Journalist?

"What are you going to do when you grow up?"

“What are you going to do when you grow up?” you ask your kids.

Most children don’t have a clue, so they answer with “fireman,” “policeman,” “doctor” or other such highly visible and seemingly exciting occupation.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a child answer, “Journalist! I want to be a journalist!” The idea to be a journalist usually comes a little later as they experience their world and see the vast variety of career choices they actually have.

But why be a journalist? Here are four possible motives for being a journalist, and more particularly, a citizen journalist.

Motive #1: To earn a living.

Anyone who has taken more than a modest look at journalism as a career has found that news reporting is not the way to great wealth. Most journalism jobs start out with very meager salaries, and with the current state of news companies, both broadcast and print, means that for the foreseeable future, salary growth will be very slow at best.

Unfortunately, pay for citizen journalists is usually less than that of professional journalists. Unless citizen journalists have their own blog or website and develop a tremendous following so they can attract advertisers or sponsors, they work for free or close to free. Many must fund their careers with other employment or by finding investors or donors.

Motive #2: To change the world.

You can find a plethora of websites, blogs, magazines, books, newspapers and other media designed to argue for a particular point of view, i.e., to change the world to think like the writers, producers and editors of that particular venue. That’s called advocacy journalism, and it’s an acceptable form of journalism, but it’s not genuine journalism.

If you become a citizen journalist to change the world, you have a tough road ahead of you as the world doesn’t change very fast. Think about it, few journalists in the history of journalism have changed their world. Here’s a test: name three journalists whose work made a significant difference – and you have to count Woodward and Bernstein as one. See what I mean?

Even those few brave citizen journalists who report from such dangerous places as Iran, Turkmenistan, Cuba and Zimbabwe keep the world informed, but little has changed within their own countries as a result of their reports. So it’s very difficult to change the world through journalism.

Motive #3: To shape the discussion.

This motive may be worthy, as it includes that increasingly popular word – discussion. The news today is becoming much more of a discussion than it has been historically. It wasn’t that long ago that what you read in the newspaper was the news of the day and the reader had no way to comment, argue, endorse or expand on a story.

Now you find email addresses just beneath the byline on most news stories in both print and Internet news products. Even broadcast news entities seek viewer feedback like never before. I like that, because now I can send the writer or producer my view, correct his/her facts, offer my opinion or otherwise participate in a discussion. And it works. Just today I read a news item on the Washington Post website that had 147 comments.

Citizen journalists with blogs, websites, comments, emails and other ways to post their news now help to shape the discussion with their reports, videos, podcasts, YouTube offerings, etc. I say, “More power to them!”

Motive #4: To report news accurately and objectively.

Of all the motives to be a citizen journalist, this one is my favorite. But like making money or changing the world as a journalist, this motive portends a tough road.

The public does not perceive the news media to be very trustworthy, according to more than two decades of Pew Research surveys that covered 1985-2009. They found that in 2009 only 29% of Americans believed that news organizations generally got the facts straight, while 63% said that news stories are often inaccurate. They compared that to 1985 when 55% of Americans said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate.

Our world needs individuals dedicated to fairness and accuracy at every level of journalistic expression. Citizens can pick up the ethical slack left by the mainstream media. It’s an uphill climb, but a climb that I think is worthy of your best effort.

Here’s why: The whole world is looking for fairness, accuracy and clarity in news reporting. They are tired of bias, baloney and blunders. They want the news, and they want it well sourced and fairly reported. If citizen journalists meet this crying need, they will be successful beyond their wildest dreams. And in the process, they will shape the discussion, change the world and who knows, maybe even make a good living.

More Stories By Ron Ross

Dr. Ron Ross is a publisher, author, speaker, radio personality residing in Loveland, Colorado. He is the author of two published books and several e-books. He is the host of Tidbits Radio on 1310KFKA-AM and on CastleRockRadio.com. He writes a weekly motivational and inspirational column that is published in a variety of newspapers.

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