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The Ethics of Citizen Journalism

The final presentation at ECREA 2016 today is by Tobias Eberwein and Colin Porlezza, whose focus is on the ethics of citizen journalism. They begin by noting the current crisis in professional journalism, and highlight the emergence of citizen journalism in response to that crisis. This is capitalising on the advantages of access, diversity, and authenticity that such citizen journalism can draw on, but there is also considerably criticism of citizen journalists for their lack of conventional journalistic training and adherence to traditional journalistic ideals.

Are the problems of citizen journalism reflected in professional ethics, then? Do the norms and values of citizen journalism differ from those of professional journalism? Are these also different across various countries and contexts?

Citizen journalism here is understood as a mode of public communication that fulfils the same tasks as professional journalism, but is performed by non-professional actors – usually by ordinary digital media users. Within this overall range of citizen-journalistic activities, there is a hierarchy from individual or small-team citizen journalism through platform-based citizen journalism to participatory journalism within an institutionalised media field.

The project, then, explored professional journalistic codes of ethics across six European countries, and also conducted interviews with 54 citizen journalists across these countries to identify their ideas about journalistic standards. The codes of ethics are starting to tackle some of the emerging issues in this area: for instance, dealing with comments or upholding the right to be forgotten. Citizen journalism as such is not necessarily being mentioned explicitly; largely, these codes only address user-generated content in a more generic way.

Codes offered by press councils also often only refer to their own members; this effectively dismisses citizen journalists who are not members of these councils. Only the Kosovan and Armenian press councils currently include citizen journalist members, it appears.

Citizen journalists themselves take a number of stances: they may abide by the professional code of ethics; they may have established their own codes of ethics (especially at the level of specific citizen journalism platforms); they may selectively adopt elements of conventional codes of ethics (such as transparency); they may take their audiences' reactions as indicators of whether they are acing ethically (thereby outsourcing ethics appraisals to their audiences); or they may treat journalistic ethics as a non-issue.

These different approaches are also distributed differently across platforms and countries. Transparency, accuracy, impartiality, and fact orientation are by far mentioned most often, but objectivity is especially strong in Poland, for instance, while Italian citizen journalists paid little attention to it. This may be indicative of different underlying journalistic cultures.

Press councils' codes of ethics do not specifically address citizen journalism, then, even though some of them have acknowledged the need to do so in future. Many interviews identified ethical considerations as important, but continue to take a very selective approach to ethics. Some outsource the issue to their audiences, or simply do not care about ethical considerations; and overall there is therefore no coherent ethics of citizen journalism.