In the year 2000, Oh Yeon-ho, a South Korean entrepreneur and co-founder of the Korean online publication OhMyNews, made the motto of his publication, “Every citizen is a reporter”.

OhMyNews requested volunteer contributors for the website, and tens of thousands responded. This event is regarded by many as the origin of citizen journalism as we know it.

In the past 24 years, many things have changed about how citizens act as independent reporters, how information is disseminated and the influence of unaffiliated journalism.

The power held by citizen journalists increases every day, and ethics are now more important than ever.

Take notes journos, because media update's Joreke Kleynhans is putting a how-to on ethical citizen journalism on the record.

What is citizen journalism?

Before we can jump into ethical conduct, we need to establish who it applies to and when it is necessary.

Citizen journalism, also referred to as collaborative media or street journalism, is a way for members of the general public to contribute to the body of public information.

The concept as we know it came about in the early 2000s. But even before then, public reporting was an important means by which historians, leaders and even the law could find primary sources of information on events.

One example is the diaries of soldiers in the American Civil War. These diaries served as important contributions to an accurate account of the events that went down during that time.

More recently, with the rise of social media, more and more aspiring journalists have taken the route of independent reporting. Traditional journalism is now becoming the road less travelled, while that title used to be reserved for independent journalism.

Social media is now filled with reporters of many kinds, such as:

  • photojournalism
  • entertainment
  • political
  • sports, and
  • pop culture journalism.

They are now commonplace on platforms like TikTok, Instagram and X.

A citizen journalist can be anyone who collects and reports information while not employed by a formal news organisation. In 2024, the most common medium for it is the Internet; however, many other media are still in use for this purpose today.  

Citizen journalism is an excellent example of press freedom in action, and the practice makes a significant contribution to the accuracy and fairness of the information the public receives.

What is ethics in journalism?

Ethics can be a difficult concept to grasp. It differs from morals and laws, which is where most people find their direction when determining what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.

Ethics refers to guidelines that dictate the desired behaviour of people in certain professions and communities. It is not the same as a handbook of rules, and it is not enforced by law to protect the freedom of the press in South Africa.

In other words, it is the responsibility of journalists and media houses to individually uphold these standards and make it their objective to empower society with their journalism.  The Press Council of South Africa compiled an ethics code that applies to South African journalists and press officials, and media entities apply this code using internal disciplinary systems.

Press freedom does not, however, prevent journalists from being prosecuted for breaking the law in the name of journalism. Trespassing properties, invading the privacy of members of the public, spreading confidential information and harassing citizens for information are just a few offences journalists have been punished for.

How does one practice ethics in citizen journalism?

Ethics in citizen journalism is complicated, because, most of the time, street journalists are a one-man show. In some cases, where a street journalist has a large audience or many years of experience, they might have a small team to help them produce their informative content.

This affects the way independent journalists are held accountable for their actions because they are not subjected to any formal disciplinary system.

Therefore, citizen journalists should always evaluate their content thoroughly before making it public. The following questions are a good place to start:

  • Is this information true, accurate and fair?
  • Is this information presented with due context and not in a misleading manner?
  • Was this information obtained legally and without intimidation?
  • Is this information free from political, ideological or religious agenda?
  • Does this information provide knowledge without defaming or accusing any party that has not been prosecuted?
  • Is this information being reported in a way that protects the identity of minors and victims of violent crimes?
  • Does this information clearly distinguish between facts and opinions?
  • Has a sensitive approach been taken to the reporting of violence or suffering?

Citizen journalists also need to evaluate whether they are publicising information in their own interest or in the interest of the public. When working alone or in small groups, it is easy to form an echo chamber and start acting in your own interest instead of the public's.

For that reason, citizen journalists need to chase as much perspective as possible and ensure that they have seen the bigger picture before they unintentionally mislead others.

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Citizen journalism is influenced by many aspects of the digital world. Read more about How social media drives citizen journalism.

*Image courtesy of Canva.