CNN takes gamble with unfiltered site

It has been some time now since we first caught wind of "citizen journalism," a trend that seems to be forever threatening to explode, without yet causing too much panic within the media landscape.

It has been some time now since we first caught wind of "citizen journalism," a trend that seems to be forever threatening to explode, without yet causing too much panic within the media landscape. The notion that regular folks will begin to seriously supplement a major news organization's editorial content has been discussed, argued, and pondered by just about every media reporter, but we're still without a unanimous thesis.

Enter CNN. Earlier this month, the cable news giant announced it was diving further into the citizen journalism movement with the upcoming launch of iReport.com, an expansion of its initiative of the same name launched back in 2006. While the idea to draw citizen reporting to one dedicated site isn't new - a number of regional newspapers have launched a similar plan - the muscle behind CNN's offering is hard to ignore.

Until now, most submissions from regular citizens were unlikely to make it onto CNN's Web site or broadcast station. Submissions were filtered by editors at the company, and only a small fraction saw the light of day. But iReport.com, which will operate totally separate from CNN.com, will more closely emulate YouTube than previous incarnations of the citizen journalism model, allowing people to upload anything they please without filters. CNN was unable to grant an interview by press time.

"I think our temptation is to say this is a great idea or a horrible idea," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. "I don't think it's either. I think it has potential to be a great tool in journalism, and it also has potential to cause great harm if it isn't executed well."

David Almacy, VP of digital strategies for Waggener Edstrom, said the tool is not as significant as the fact that CNN is involved. After all, many of these tools are already available in places not associated with a major journalistic brand.

"It's really the mix between the concept of citizen journalism and a branded mainstream media outlet," Almacy says. "There are two things needed for successful reporting - it has to be authentic and it has to be credible. In this sense, CNN provides the credibility and the users provide the authenticity, so it's a perfect marriage between the two."

Continual oversight is critical in a venture like this. With iReport.com allowing users to load video without it first being seen by an editor, the ability to flag something offensive or inappropriate will be an important feature, McBride says. She notes that effectively monitoring a flagging system is something other sites haven't been able to do well, and it's a feature necessary to a venture that has journalism as its core mission. One issue left undetermined is how CNN will deal with potential libel issues on the site. Within the "terms of use" box, the company warns against such material, but how that might be treated in court is another matter.

Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and a PRWeek columnist, says that the network will also need to think about why users would choose to upload content to the new site as opposed to any other site.

"I'm hoping it's not going to fall into the category that a lot of people seem to be trying to make happen, which is under the category of 'you all do the work, we'll take the money, thank you very much.' That would be unfortunate," Gillmor says.

Almacy says there's another way to think about it, though. "One of the complaints about the media is the content, those decisions [are] being decided by a select few people," he says. "What we see here is the shift of that. Users can decide what they think is important and by CNN providing their name, it's given weight."

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