The  journalism of yesteryear was conducted in simpler times. Newsmen knew with assured confidence that early-edition newspapers would fuel breakfast table discussions, and following the inception of television, that families would gather unconditionally for grainy evening news broadcasts.

Since then, reporters and editors have faced their fair share of challenges, and the same advances in technology that brought pictures of Vietnam and the moon landing into the homes of millions, are today regarded as problems for the news business. Amid nosediving newspaper sales and declining viewing figures, the distractions of social media are often seen as a hinderance to the spread of real news.

Technology and journalism have always walked proudly hand-in-hand. When Johannes Gutenberg brought the printing press to Western Europe in the mid 15th century, he revolutionised the art of communications. Information, intellectualism and creativity spread like wildfire, and the frequent reference to the media as “The Press” is a consequence of that. Newspapers flourished, and to this very day are a staple of many peoples’ lives.

As time went on, radio quickly blossomed into the go-to medium for news and information. By the 20th century, when the dark days of the First and Second World Wars dominated the airwaves, it was more important than ever. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill delivered the news to his country that “the news from France was very bad,” and across the Atlantic, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared with Americans his famed Fireside Chats, the first time in history that a Commander-in-Chief had so intimately been “present” in millions of homes.

The 1950s saw moving pictures of the post-war landscape beamed into the living rooms of people across the globe, as television redefined the possibilities of technology, and gave people a first-hand look at events such as the death and funeral of John F. Kennedy. TV kept growing, and we saw the birth of the 24-hour-news cycle. Our passion for information had come full circle, and we could now get news whenever we wanted.

However, newspaper circulation is dwindling, the radio is often used for music and gossip, and television is swamped with celebrity house tours and crime shows. News is falling by the wayside, and this is where social media comes in.

It’s a massive industry – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Tumblr are just a handful of the sites with huge user bases. Many journalists think with all these social platforms vying for peoples’ attention, let alone the vast range of television channels, that there is little hope for news. It’s much easier today for us to shut ourselves away from the harsh realities of the world, and escape to Vine to see videos of cats doing backflips. But while it might spell the end for traditional journalism, it doesn’t have to spell the end for information flow.

A survey by Pew found that over HALF of Facebook and Twitter users currently get their news from those sites, and half of Facebook users get news from at least 6 different areas. Based on this Pew research, a whopping 70% of users who get their news through Facebook obtain it from their friends and family, not journalists. Clearly, there’s a demand for information on social media, it’s just more incidental. Because we’re not seeking news, it has to be built into our daily social media scrolling.

BBC News, for example, recently launched an Instagram feed where users can get 3 headlines in a fifteen-second clip. A site like BuzzFeed, which in the past has been chastised as nothing more than click-baiting, now boasts Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs as its Investigations and Projects Editor. It’s all about implementing news into social media, so we don’t have to go and actually find it. Targeted posts and pinned tweets aid this, but the aim is for it to be totally organic. It may be that as users, we have to do more to share information.

Today, we find ourselves in an age of sleepless media consumption and production, with its boundaries always expanding. It’s never been easier for anyone to create, report, comment on, or even break news, and the power of the citizen has never been stronger. If we are not going to visit sources where journalists ply their trade, such as newspapers and television news, there is an onus on citizens to aid the flow of information more. Citizen journalism, as it’s called, is growing. 

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s now-infamous remarks at a May 2012 private fundraiser, where he claimed “it was not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and believe that they are victims,” was captured on film by a bartender working the event. As a result, Romney lost around 1.5% in the polls the following week.

And how about May 2011, when Sohaib Athair (@ReallyVirtual on Twitter) unknowingly gave live updates of the U.S. operation to kill Osama Bin Laden? A normal, everyday citizen of Abbottobad, Pakistan, Athair was informing the entire world of what was happening before major reporters and conventional journalists were even aware of a story. In this respect, citizen journalism as well as uncovering hidden truths, can allow news to reach the world quickly, more effectively, and in the Bin Laden case, without hyperbole or framing. 

TOne of Athar's tweets during the Bin Laden raid, 2011
One of Athar’s tweets during the Bin Laden raid, 2011

The devastating conflict in the Middle East now finds itself at the centre of conversation around the world. Much of that coverage, is due in part to the willingness of citizens and bystanders to share what they are seeing with the world, urging others to pass it on and help resolve the crisis. It’s hard for official accounts and media profiles to “take sides” so to speak, but a citizen is not bound to the same restrictions.

Citizen journalism is not without its critics, and many have contended that ‘@YourAverageJoe’ is not professionally qualified to report on news, nor is he necessarily objective or accurate. There is also the threat of the spread of misinformation, an issue which manifests itself in every modern crisis. When this happens, it only takes one reporter or news account to retweet or even acknowledge those tweets for them to go viral and spread like wildfire.

But, as the Washington Post notes, the ever-widening possibilities of modern media and the ever-decreasing gap between the public and the media, means that the cloak of privacy doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as it once did. It also means that if we’re not going to traditional sources for our news, it has to find its way into our daily feeds by other means.

There is a true onus on the public to share what they see, and for as long as viewing figures and newspaper sales continue to decline, it’s the best way to get information around social circles. Social media is incredibly powerful; if we use it correctly, we are too.


Title image credit: Jason Howie