It’s a cliché, but it’s true — anyone with a smartphone is a journalist nowadays. You can shoot and edit photo and video using technology carried in the average person’s pocket. Apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook can then upload that footage onto the web in seconds, allowing us to share breaking news (or, as is more often the case, photos of the family cat) with the rest of the world.
When the Arab Spring erupted in late 2010, traditional American media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times relied on tweets from local activists and protesters to piece together a semblance of sense from the chaos. Bystander footage of police shootings now appears regularly on TV news. Self-produced podcasts streamed on the Internet are gaining popularity.
This trend has incorporated the citizenry in the news-gathering and news-making process. Arming ordinary people with the tools to make and disseminate journalism has lengthened the media’s reach. But this democratization of media has blurred the boundary between rumor and truth and thrown consumers of news into a confusing snarl of opinion and fact that’s often difficult to untangle.
Professional news outlets have in-house rules that mandate fact checking. Reporters and editors are required to paint a balanced picture of a situation or issue — if someone is accused of something, they get a chance to explain or defend themselves. Dissenting opinions are incorporated into stories. No statistic goes unchecked, no assertion unchallenged.
Citizen journalists have no such obligations. Their content is published without vetting from editors or fact-checkers. And so we often get incomplete, if not deliberately misleading, stories from such citizen journalists.
What’s more, publications like the Odyssey Online, Elite Daily and the Huffington Post enlist the aid of college students like myself to write opinion pieces on the day’s hot topics. Too often, these are misconstrued as news stories. Let me be clear: This is not a news story. This is an opinion piece.
But this erosion of the strict distinction between professional journalism and citizen journalism challenges the long-held assumption that media is fair, balanced and purely informative.
Professional journalists have to follow rules that mandate fairness; their work is reviewed by even more experienced journalists who point out errors and flaws in a story. But media is still produced and edited by human beings with built-in biases. The professional journalist is only slightly better-equipped (and more obligated) than the citizen journalist to identify them and weed them out.
Biases can be rooted in anything — race, gender, class, sexuality, geography, level of education — and in this respect, the democratization of media with smartphones and social media can help hold these biases in check.
To be a professional journalist in this day and age, you have to have a college degree. This removes the voices of a huge percentage of the population from traditional news outlets. A professional journalist has a profoundly different view on life than, say, a fast-food worker. They’d probably live in different neighborhoods and probably associate with different friend groups. The things a professional journalist sees on an average day would differ considerably from what a fast-food worker would see.
This is why the democratization of media is important. It allows people who were previously excluded from the news-making process to publish content without having to go through the traditional media avenues that require approval from well-educated and often well-off professionals. And if such citizen-produced media is tinged with bias, it is bias that counteracts the biases of traditional media — media that has long been dominated by educated, white and wealthy men.
Media in 2016 is complicated. The old arbiters of news are being challenged by smartphone-wielding, live-streaming citizen journalists and blogs that accept contributions from anyone with an opinion and a keyboard. It’s becoming more difficult to distinguish truth from rumor and fact from opinion when reading the news, but this inclusion of everyday people into the news industry has made for more comprehensive and diverse coverage of the issues that matter most to us.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.