Princess Kate-focused social media frenzy throws citizen journalism into review

10 APRIL 2024

Princess Kate-focused social media frenzy throws citizen journalism into review

With a simple camera phone and access to the internet, anyone can report on matters of public interest, from car accidents to celebrity sightings to missing princesses.

But, can it go too far?

By Senior Lecturer in Communication in the Charles Sturt University School of Information and Communication Studies Dr Travis Holland.

The intense public scrutiny and mess of conspiracy theories surrounding the months-long public absence of Catherine, Princess of Wales, demonstrates several converging media trends.

On social media, users closely analysed grainy photographs and sought to enhance them with artificial intelligence, while the global 24-hour news cycle went into overdrive on both sides of the Atlantic.

Much of the British press remained steadfastly opposed to reporting rumours and innuendo even as their American counterparts used the story as fodder for late-night talk show material.

There are even suggestions that a Russian disinformation campaign was behind much of the coverage online.

The rise of citizen journalists

The advent of widespread and cheap recording and photography equipment, coupled with a decline in advertising revenue used to sustain news businesses has led to the emergence of a new phenomenon: the citizen journalist.

A citizen journalist is generally someone who acts like a journalist in capturing video, photographs, or details of an emerging story and publishes the material online or shares it with professional news organisations.

They often operate in two ways: either as bystanders when news breaks, or someone who recognises a gap in news coverage and actively pursues a story.

They may work independently or in partnership with established media.

The changing media landscape

As the Princess of Wales saga shows, citizen journalism itself is also changing. Now, those involved in ‘covering’ a story and analysing details may be remote and primarily relying on social media rather than acting as on-the-ground reporters.

I asked my doctoral student Ms Nicole Sim, who is researching the role of citizen journalism in conflict zones, for her view. She said that citizen journalists are at risk of defamation or other charges if they spread misinformation.

“Citizen journalists are at a higher risk of being charged with defamation because they are not protected by the media laws that protect journalists and lack the education and experience of legally battling prominent figures,” Ms Sim said.

On the other hand, citizen journalism can sometimes prompt traditional media organisations into action.

“Citizen journalists follow the timeliness of news, just like the media. This creates competition for media outlets, challenging them to publish stories with higher production value to engage the audience,” Ms Sim added.

The impact of the ‘rumour mill’

There is also a growing distrust of mainstream media, which itself may be a result of news businesses pursuing ‘clickable’ or sensationalised stories, such as celebrity gossip over more slowly unfolding and carefully researched material.

Ms Sim said that even though citizen journalists are often motivated by good intentions, such as attempting to take the role of journalism where media has been suppressed or withdrawn, they are susceptible to spreading misinformation due to a lack of institutional support and resources.

We are seeing feedback loops between the digital transformation of media businesses, the rise of social media, ongoing challenges to news funding models, and deliberate disinformation campaigns.

These trends will continue to shape news in coming years, especially around big global stories where there is a lot of public interest.

ENDS


Media Note:

To arrange an interview with Dr Travis Holland, contact Jessica McLaughlin at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0430 510 538 or via news@csu.edu.au

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