The Problem With Alternative Journalism

Yes, user generated content (UGC) is faster and often allows us to get access to events or places we wouldn’t have otherwise, as Ira Basen proves with his example of the 2009 Iranian elections No government can ban all of their citizens from documenting history, and this is one of the great benefits of citizen journalism and social media.

However, when all citizens can use their phones or cameras and are considered “journalists” it also allows for greater incidents of fabrication and provides a forum for rapid-fire dissemination of those fabrications.

As Basen notes in his article, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” Websites like NowPublic require no verification whatsoever and are linked to social media, therefore not only can a contributor find a fabricated story or video and post it to their website, it can then be spread through social media like wildfire without anyone realizing the story is a fake until it is too late.

The dangers of UGC and the lack of verification at sites like NowPubic are especially apparent when we are talking about photo and video journalism. Not only is fabrication easy, in times of crisis people are willing to believe almost anything.

Quite literally anyone with a camera phone and decent Photoshop skills can create fabricated images and disseminate them across social media as “news”.  

Take for example the case of a New Jersey resident who claimed he had seen sharks on his street after Hurrican Sandy. This citizen journalist posted images of two sharks on his street in Brigantine Beach, New Jersey, which quickly spread through social media and then were reported on by a station in South Carolina. These images were later found to be a complete hoax, but not quickly enough to stop them from being both widely spread and reported on.

Without having what Basen calls a “gatekeeper” to verify the veracity of images and video provided by citizen journalists, how are we to know what is real and what is not before it is too late. This particular hoax was not damaging or dangerous in any real way but with new forgeries being created everyday, it is only a matter of time.These forgeries pose not just a risk to the general public, but legal ramifications for the news outlets that use them.

 To quote Basen, “professional journalists, disinterested and unattached to any political or commercial sponsor—are necessary to keep the misleaders at bay.” User generated content is useful but only when vetted and verified first by professional journalists. 

 Suggested Follow Up:

Research Shows Dangers of User Generated Content by Warwick Ashford 

The Downside of User Generated Content by Mathew Ingram

Web 2.0 and User Generated Content; legal challenges in the new frontier by Dr. Carlilse George and Dr. Jackie Scerri

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