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Navigating ethical crossroads of Citizen Journalism in Nigeria: A call for balanced discourse

Navigating ethical crossroads of Citizen Journalism in Nigeria: A call for balanced discourse

“Citizen journalism is rapidly emerging as an invaluable part of delivering the news. With the expansion of the Web and the ever-decreasing size and cost of camera phones and video cameras, the ability to commit acts of journalism is spreading to everyone.” – Arianna Huffington

When Arianna Huffington, author and co-founder of The Huffington Post made this comment in 2008, traditional publishers whose beliefs were deeply rooted in the status quo, maintained that regular people with no knowledge of professional journalistic practices would be disallowed to drive news.

However, Arianna’s approach to making good of an opportunity, which would have otherwise been tagged catastrophic, led to the relaunch of the first citizen journalism and ethical newsroom collaboration, and this greatly impacted the 2012 elections in the United States of America.

This collaboration birthed, ‘OffTheBus’ – an innovative citizen journalism initiative of nationwide bloggers and citizen journalists that empowers and provides a platform for citizen journalists to report on all aspects of the 2012 potential elections with direction from expert journalists. This initiative led to a collaboration with 12,000 people who participated in OffTheBus from 2008 to 2012.

This is the good half of citizen journalism as we know it. The other half is the exact opposite of what the traditional media fears. The half that crosses the ethical boundaries of journalism, and threatens to erode the truth at a time when the media seeks to regain public trust. Many stakeholders in the media landscape share these sentiments and are well-rooted in this other school of thought.

As rightly stated by Sam Akpe and Mercy Tartsea-Anshase in an opinion piece titled, “Citizen journalism and democratic consolidation,” published on Premium Times, citizen journalism blurs all the lines.

“With citizen journalism, the so-called reporter is also the publisher. He or she reports to nobody. There is no gatekeeping, there is no filtering process, there is no verification, there is no attempt to balance the story. They see it, they report it, they publish it, and life continues.”

Opinion experts like Mercy and Sam believe that citizen journalists must first deliberately undergo training in the rudiments of normative reporting or subject their passion to collaborate with the mainstream media. While I agree that this is indeed true, and should be the way to go, the question that nags me remains: ‘Is there an innovative way to regulate citizen journalism and make collaboration with traditional media houses or digital media houses more attractive?’

The ‘Gloomy-Side Up’ of Nigeria’s citizen journalism

In Nigeria’s case, citizen journalism might just have done more harm than good. The transfer of total power to the people to share information without regulations has driven empowered rumor mongers and gossips to set up social blogs that peddle lies against the government and the people.

We have seen the rise of gossip blogs and how they have tarnished images, fuelled social wars that escalated to physical battles, incited riots, and threatened to render the thin threads holding the nation together. Citizen journalism has reduced trust levels and increased the spread of fake news.

As culled from Dubawa, a few examples of misinformation shared on social media through citizen journalism, that threatened the peace of our nation include:

Nnamdi Kalu’s Arrest: On the 29th of June, the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, revealed during a press conference that the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has been located and brought back to Nigeria to face trial for terrorism.

Thereafter, several versions emerged online on how the federal government was able to arrest the IPOB leader. One such is a claim that a lady in the post above was used by the federal government as bait to arrest Nnamdi Kanu.

However, research shows that the lady in the picture is actually his wife, Uchechi.

Ahead of the 2023 elections in Nigeria, the internet was a sea of fake news. Social media ran wild with unverified stories disseminated by citizen journalists, and Nigerians who didn’t know better ensured the propagation of these information pieces that not only threatened our democracy but also tried to incite violence across communities in the country. Politicians collaborated with popular citizen journalists to launch misinformation campaigns in the amplification of their bias against opponents.

The BBC even uncovered how Nigerian politicians secretly paid social media influencers and select citizen journalists as much as N20 million ($43,000) or promised government contracts and political appointments to spread disinformation about opponents, in January 2023. Some of these ‘jobbers’ were also recruited to “situation rooms” to monitor the spread of the fake news, the report added.

Misinformation by citizen journalists has now become a pandemic threatening the peace of our nation.

Focusing on the Positives

There is no denying that despite the saturation of citizen journalists in the country, the Nigerian journalism landscape has seen drastic changes in recent years.

The two-edged sword ‘citizen journalism’ has become an important factor in the progress of this landscape. This phenomenon has led to a breakthrough in investigative journalism in Nigeria. Citizen journalists have broken stories about political corruption, police brutality, and other issues of concern to local and national communities.

Even more importantly, as many digital news players might agree, citizen journalism has broken the hitherto seemingly endless monopoly of the mainstream media. As such, journalism is today democratic and participatory. By granting access to just anyone to cover the news, citizen journalism presents a more personal, nuanced view of events. It has the potential to cultivate communities of people with a common interest.

Interestingly, a rather impressive benefit of citizen journalism is its delivery of news at almost the speed of lightning. It has surpassed the speed advantage that broadcast media (radio and television) has always held. Now, with the help of digital technology (social media especially), news spreads like wildfire in split seconds without the need to undergo any editorial processes. Feedback is also immediate.

Now, the audience has the opportunity to react to the news instantly and contribute to the content. This is why citizen journalism is also called “We Media” or “Our Media”, a brand of journalism that can be called ours and repurposed for the sole benefit of sharing news creatively and immediately.

Striking the balance

In my opinion, interesting case studies about how developed countries have integrated citizen journalism within systems of reporting should be studied by countries plagued by the unregulated scenery of citizen journalism. Only then would we achieve our goal of a unified newsroom.

This is why we must strike a balance between the empowering potential of citizen journalism and the ethical imperatives of responsible reporting. While citizen journalists have a valuable role to play in amplifying diverse voices and holding power to account, they must also adhere to basic journalistic principles of accuracy, accountability, and fairness.

This requires a collaborative effort between citizen journalists and professional news organizations. Rather than seeing citizen journalism as a threat, we should view it as an opportunity to complement traditional reporting and enrich our understanding of the world around us. By providing guidance and support to citizen journalists, professional newsrooms can help ensure that the information they share is accurate, ethical, and in the public interest.

A refreshed lens for all to look from

The evolving role of citizen journalism in Nigeria presents both opportunities and challenges. By fostering a culture of responsible reporting and collaboration between citizen journalists and professionals, we can harness the transformative power of citizen journalism while safeguarding the integrity of our information ecosystem.

As we navigate this ethical crossroads, we must engage in open and constructive dialogue, recognizing the complexities and nuances of the issues at hand. Only by working together can we ensure that citizen journalism fulfills its potential as a force for positive change in Nigerian society.

While citizen journalism has been said to be the future of information dissemination, a discerning audience that can filter fake news/misinformation is very vital to the soul of true journalism. This is why Legit.ng is strengthening its commitment to the truth, and restoring trust in journalism through its media literacy project. You can learn more and participate in future trainings at https://specials.legit.ng/legitmedialiteracy

Rahaman Abiola

Rahaman Abiola is Legit.ng’s Editor-in-Chief, and a Reuters-trained journalist with a firm grip of over 7-year experience stranding diverse roles in digital & traditional media and social media communications. He is currently a board member of the International News Media Association (INMA)’s Africa Advisory Council. He is an award-winning fact-checking, digital, with specialty in human interest reports and has a track record of modern editorial practice including a demonstrated history of social media and newsroom management.