There is arguably no better word to describe the 21st-century media environment than "fragmented." In increasingly larger numbers, people are no longer relying on the traditional news diet of the local newspaper, 30 minutes of evening national news, and one local news broadcast to stay informed.
Because of this, thousands of newspapers across the country have closed this century. At the local level, that means there are a lot of city councils, county boards, other elected bodies, and unelected bureaucrats doing their jobs with little scrutiny. This environment allows corruption and incompetence to flourish. What can you do about it?
Anyone Can Be a Journalist
If you are looking to fill a news gap in your area, the First Amendment's freedoms of speech and the press guarantee that anyone can be a journalist. This is the essence of "citizen journalism."
While newspapers and other media organizations have advertising money to provide employees with salaries, benefits, and legal support, what you may not realize is that there are no barriers to being a journalist. Professional journalists at newspapers, magazines, and television stations may be part of unions, but they are neither accredited nor licensed.
In fact, many big, newsworthy moments have been captured by citizen journalists, many of whom didn't even set out to fill that role. In one of the most notable examples, teenager Darnella Frazier used her cellphone video camera to record and then share the murder of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin. Without that video, there would be less evidence to challenge the police's account of Floyd's death.
What Can You Do as a Citizen Journalist?
Since anyone can be a journalist, that means you can do anything a "professional" journalist does! That means you can:
- Interview people, including public officials
- Film newsworthy events
- Publish your stories, videos, podcasts, and other media
- Conduct investigations by examining public records
- Receive confidential information from anonymous sources
The Limitations of Citizen Journalism
While we noted all of the things you can do as a citizen journalist, it's also important to remember that just because you call yourself a journalist, it doesn't mean everyone will treat you like one. Remember:
- People do not have to talk to you, just like they can refuse comment to professional journalists.
- If an event is restricted to credentialed members of the press, and the event organizer declines to give you a credential, you cannot attend.
- You cannot trespass on private property.
- There is no right to a printing press, television broadcast channel, or any other equipment or infrastructure typical of "the press." Media organizations pay for all of this themselves.
- You cannot intentionally or maliciously commit libel or slander against someone.
Some of this is just a matter of being taken seriously by the community. Whether you are seen as a "credentialed," "professional," or "serious" journalist will have the largest effect on whether you can access events, such as press conferences. Historically, that perception typically came from your ability to get your work out there. This used to require capital investments. Fortunately, internet publishing, social media, and crowd-funding sites have reduced many of the barriers to disseminating citizen journalism to the public.
There are also instances where police and judges may not respect your right to engage in news-gathering, whether you are at an event or you are filming in the middle of a protest. You may also encounter a situation where you need to keep a source's identity secret. While your First Amendment rights are the same, that does not mean you may not face arrest in the heat of the moment.
Get Out There and Report
If there are things that you want to know about, and the media is not covering them, you can seek out the facts yourself. You may find out that your fellow citizens appreciate the effort.