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May 3, 2013

Members of the Free Syrian Army prepare their weapons in a photo by a citizen journalist, verified by the Associated Press.
Members of the Free Syrian Army prepare their weapons in a photo by a citizen journalist, verified by the Associated Press.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
May 2, 2013

Social media users, sometimes called citizen journalists, bring fresh new voices to the daily commentary on world events. But a question is circulating in journalistic circles on World Press Freedom Day 2013, May 3: Do citizen journalists report with integrity and standards that serve their audiences?

The April 15 terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon provides examples of both the best and worst trends occurring in social media, according to one expert who has watched the evolution of these media from the Cable News Network (CNN). Lila King, senior director for social news at the international channel, said social media users who were close to the site of the bombing did what citizen journalists can do best: They provided eyewitness accounts of what happened, conveying the atmosphere in the midst of chaos and the visceral feelings at such an event.

As the hours passed, King said, “some of the dangers” of social media also emerged. Users engaged in speculation, lacking facts, with some even attempting to act like law enforcement investigators and identifying suspects. King likened that trend to a “digital witch hunt,” which can become “incredibly dangerous.”

Speaking on a May 2 CO.NX program, a digital diplomacy channel of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, King said professional, traditional media have a public responsibility in the midst of a crisis. They must verify what circulates in social media, separating the true from the false, teasing out the likely from the highly improbable.

King discussed these issues with Sharon Moshavi, a vice president at the International Center for Journalists, as audiences watched at U.S. embassies around the world. A viewer from Dhaka asked whether citizen journalists need a code of ethics.

“When we are all documenting our world,” King responded, “it just means we bear a shared responsibility to maintain ethics.”

Professional journalists have long tried to abide by a code that requires telling the truth, presenting opposing sides of a story with fairness and balance. King said the code for citizen journalists should be similar.

Citizen journalism is at its strongest, King said, when it offers a personal angle on a story that will connect with the audience. King helped establish and now maintains a CNN community called iReport, a platform for citizen journalism, which she also calls participatory storytelling.

The strengths of personal storytelling emerged on another occasion in April, Autism Awareness Month in the United States. IReport received many submissions from people with this brain disorder and their families and caregivers.

“They shared very personal stories about what it is like in the workplace or in the family or dealing with schools, parenting,” she said. “Those kinds of stories tend to shed light about health care and how we work with, and understand, one another.”

These reports unveil a personal dimension to a story that professional journalists usually have a difficult time reaching, King added.

What advice does King offer for would-be citizen journalists? Get started. Now. The media are moving and changing all the time, so aspiring storytellers need to begin to understand the form as it is evolving, King said, even if they start with something as simple as a tweet, the 140-character messages exchanged on the Twitter platform.

King also advised citizen journalists to be themselves, not the TV newsreader with perfect hair and clothes. The strength of the medium is that it allows each individual to broadcast their personal, unique view of the world.

Think about how you would tell a story to a friend over dinner or a coffee, King said, and deliver that voice and perspective to an audience awaiting you online.