Making the Citizen Journalist part of your News Team

valerie1_110Your credibility as a station may be all you have that differentiates you from all the noise – clutter and plethora of “citizen journalists” Quoting Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkin’s dad, “It takes years to build a reputation, minutes to destroy it. “Don’t let that happen in your radio station! Training your people to insure information is correct no matter where it comes from – and hiring people who are capable of “Critical Thinking,” is an essential component in an age of “Citizen Journalism”

Where anyone can say anything and it’s so easy technologically for people to fake video/audio – always protect your product by arming producers, talkhosts and broadcast journalists with tools to insure broadcasting truthful and accurate information and are holding onto the most precious commodity we have as news organizations; our credibility and reputation. – Valerie Geller

As many news staffs at radio stations have been cut to the bone for economic reasons, stations have increasingly been relying on “citizen journalism.” Although that’s a fancy new name for it, citizen journalism has been around since the early days of news-talk radio. Broadcasting has historically been interactive, with extensive use of the “eyewitness report.” Whenever there’s a major local or national event – an earthquake, hurricane, or car accident – news and talk radio have always utilized phone lines to allow audience members experiencing or witnessing the events to participate.

One of the first instances of “citizen journalism” in video format was the “Zapruder film,” footage captured by a bystander of the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy in 1963. A man with a movie camera, in the crowd, filmed the tragedy for the nation to witness. What has changed over the decades is the technology. Now, with recording devices cheaply and readily available, more “citizen journalists” are walking around with cameras and phones in their pockets.

“Citizen Journalists” are literally everywhere. Whether it’s footage of a natural disaster, a soldier’s view from a war zone, celebrity news, or a major traffic jam, radio and TV stations all want to have access to this growing universe of raw audio and video for their airwaves and websites. From school shootings to global terrorist attacks, news and talk radio have come to expect and rely on instantaneous reports and contributions from members of their audience to help cover events. In many cases, citizen journalists are being used to replace or augment paid staff broadcasters formerly sent to cover these events. The work formerly done by professionals, who once gave these events context and perspective, is now often delegated to “citizen journalists” who “work” for free.


Anyone Can Become A Citizen Reporter

Information is coming from everywhere. Witnesses using “Twitter,” early use of Twitter: the micro-blogging instant messaging service got word to the public of a gunman who had invaded a cable TV network headquarters near Washington, DC. The news, including a photo of the armed man, was out within minutes of the intruder entering the building. It came to some viewers as radio or TV news, and, much later, as a newspaper story. But it arrived first and fastest in the form of a text or tweet to screens in people’s pockets and on their desktops. As with other big and fast-moving news events, like the recent hurricanes, or in the past, the landing of a jet airliner in New York City’s Hudson River in 2009 and the 2008 Mumbai massacre, where millions of Twitter clients and IM users functioned as amateur news reporters.

In addition to the breaking news, research shows that listeners and viewers are flocking to websites to get “the rest of the story…” or to “see” photos or video of what they’re hearing on the radio. They’re using new media tools to share information with each other, and they’re willing, in fact they are happy, to share it with you. But citizen journalists present another issue: there is a lot of information coming forward that needs to be checked out. Most stations don’t have the personnel to investigate or look into everything, but tweets may give you ideas, leads or at least something you can go on that’s worth investigating further.

Some broadcasting managers have cleverly taken the natural affinity of a generation to communicate instantly and fluidly with their peers, transported these consumers of new media to their news rooms, trained them, and made them part of their teams. A a not-so-secret “secret” about footage being posted to stations’ websites is that some of the best of it is coming not from citizen journalists, but from the stations’ own staffs, who may not have carried cameras or video recorders in the past. The audience doesn’t care who took the footage, they care that it helps tell the story. But, is the story accurate?

Accuracy – Making Sure You Get it Right

The benefits of using citizen journalists are great. Ask any news director, and you’re likely to hear that he or she depends to a certain extent on being able to send and receive “tweets” or instant messages to and from the audience. But these same news directors will readily admit that having un-vetted information flowing into your station is risky. At some point, before a report from a “citizen” goes into your news, you need to check it out. In other words, if the public is to be able to rely on your product, at some point a real journalist is going to have to work on the story. That’s your quality control.

Credibility Check

By using “citizen journalists,” you expose your station to the possibility of putting out incorrect information, and damaging your reputation as a credible news resource. There’s the scenario where someone with an axe to grind or a political point to make will feed you images that have been cropped or altered to slant the story. It’s happened, and when it does, it is hard to take back. One example: An international news reporting service telling the story of a political incident between soldiers and a crowd of protesters that turned violent aired “citizen journalist” video of the soldiers attacking an unarmed man. The “citizen journalist” had cropped out the portion of the man’s hand that showed both sides were armed. Be aware: There are hoaxes, and publicity seekers. There are well intentioned people who simply don’t know what to make of what they’re seeing or hearing.

These things have happened, and they are bound to happen again. When events of the day affect the lives, well-being or safety of the audience, that’s when you not only need the news, you need news that is trustworthy. You have a chance to serve your public by broadcasting reliable information. It’s an opportunity for your news or talk radio station to grow its base by attracting new audiences to your format – people who may come to check on the big event and then perhaps stick around.

Many listeners regard the news as their insurance policy. They listen to make sure the world is safe. But what about an insurance policy for your news? What is to stop the station from broadcasting audio or video that’s been concocted on someone’s home computer editing station?
How do you know whether what you are seeing is real? As always, it will come down to your people. Your people, though you may have fewer of them, now must become more expert editors, fact checkers, skeptics and, as always, powerful storytellers.

Giving Context – Not Just Content!

A responsible, trained and credible producing, programming and on-air team will be more important than ever in giving the stories covered more context and meaning. Raw video or audio is just that – it usually tells only part of the story. The background and the story’s possible implications need to be provided by your station.

Your station’s reputation is what you have to offer “citizen journalists.” Your good name, call letters, branding, and credibility are the reason they want their photos and sound posted on your website and on your airwaves, as opposed to simply putting them on their own blogs or posting on You Tube.

There is a benefit to both sides. Without your news and talk personalities, it’s just pictures and sound. As anyone who has ever conducted an interview or taken a call on the air can tell you, not everyone with a story to tell is a good storyteller. And when you do get a story from your audience that sounds almost too good or too spicy to be true, check it out. Maybe it is.

The answer is to hire right. Be willing to hold back information if you are not certain it’s true. (“When in doubt – leave it out.”) Media Executive Bernard Gershon offers specific criteria for “hiring right” in Beyond Powerful Radio – That’s even more important when you consider choosing “citizen journalists,” or using their content. To use “citizen journalism” responsibly, you need someone in the editor’s chair who can take that raw footage or audio and use it to tell a truthful story that will touch your audience. Someone who knows how to “vet” the story and ask the question: “Who benefits from this story?” Is it true? But by using Gershon’s criteria, you might find that one of your citizen journalists could become your next great hire.

Citizen journalists can work hand in hand with your staff to generate talkable topics or human interest stories on a slow news day. If someone has filed great audio or video for you from the street, keep their contact information and invite them back if you think they can add something to your product. With all the talk about citizen journalists as the future of the industry, creating powerful communication in the age of citizen journalism will depend at the end of the day on something as old as communication itself: Tell the truth, make it matter and never be boring.

Valerie Geller Schedule

I hope that if you’re in the area or planning to attend any of these conferences, you’ll say hi!

September 20, The NAB/RAB Radio Show Dallas – September 20  – “Creating Powerful Content…from the Blank Page to Radio Sage” 

October 2, I’ll be in Washington, DC, for the NAB Presenting a Small Market Radio Webcast for NAB members: “Powerfully Engage And Grow Your Audience By Mastering Social Media.”

October 6-9 Los Angeles

October I’ll be working in Australia, if you’re in Sydney:

October 12 – Commercial Radio Australia “Creating Powerful Communicators Workshop”

October 13 – IMB Academy “Creating Powerful Communicators Workshop” in Sydney, Australia

October 20, 2012 –IMB Academy “Never Lose A Listener Master Class,” Sydney Australia 

Back in the USA:

November 1  – Workshop /Keynote in Boston

Massachusetts Association of Broadcasters (Creating Powerful Radio Workshop)

I’ll be working in Europe in Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Istanbul, Turkey, in November and December.

About the Writer

DisplayValerie Geller, president of Geller Media International Broadcast Consultants, works to help communicators become more powerful in 30 countries for news, talk, information and personality. Through consulting and individual coaching for news and talk talent, Geller finds and develops personalities, leads “Creating Powerful Radio” and “Communicate Powerfully” workshops and seminars for radio and TV broadcasters, internet radio and podcasters. Geller is the recipient of the Conclave’s 2010 Rockwell Lifetime Achievement Award and is the author of four books about radio including her latest from Focal Press Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age. To contact Valerie Geller for a one-on-one coaching or consulting appointment, or for information on the “Powerful Radio” seminars and workshops, call 212 580-3385

Note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on and has been republished with permission.