Rising problem of citizen journalists

Citizen journalists have been hailed by many as the next generation of 'truth searchers' against the evils of the state. The development of web 2.0 has made thousands of people into aspiring or part-time journalists. One only has to look at the BBC or Sky news websites to see that traditional media now rely heavily on such people for their news, pictures, stories and gossip to fill the vacuum left by the decline of investment in investigative journalism.

Yet over the past few weeks, I have received a rising number of emails from concerned councils asking how to handle citizen journalists. Councils frequently complain that they are not playing by the rules - by breaking embargoes, quoting people when it is off the record, and worst of all, writing libellous or slanderous 'news' on their websites.

But how can PR people deal with these changes? High speed and cheap broadband is adding to the problem. Who would have thought five years ago that push and point digital photos would be newspaper quality or that videos and setting up web domain names would become so easy or so cheap?

So what can be done when a citizen journalist website is starting to libel the council or its employees, or demand the same access to politicians and press conferences as traditional NCTJ-trained journalists?

From what people tell me, explaining the 'rules of the game' or the inaccuracies of their news stories often fall on deaf ears. Suing one of these websites for libel would have to be a very big decision because it could be portrayed as a David vs Goliath battle of truth-searching vs corporate censorship. It could end up a bigger PR disaster than if the story had been ignored.

Once a citizen journalist website is established it may be a case of trying to establish the same ground rules applied to traditional hacks. If this fails then it may be the case of having to bite the bullet and undertake a major rethink of the way comms is done. This may be short-term pain but could provide long-term gains. Who knows where five more years of technological developments will leave journalism? By then we may have progressed to a world of web 4.0.

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