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Get Real, Citizen Journalists

This article includes mature content:
Profanity/inflammatory language in direct quotation.

It's hard out there for a citizen journalist when credibility is sought.

It's hard out there for a citizen journalist when credibility is sought. /Richard Deming

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It’s hard to be a citizen journalist. You don’t get paid. You have no idea what you’re doing. You have to keep your iPhone charged so you can tweet breaking news… And, after all that, people don’t even take you seriously.

“Without the training and education that most journalists have, most citizens cannot qualify as journalists,” says Indiana University professor David Weaver, in the Online Journalism Review.

PR president Richard Rohr takes this even further, arguing that journalists’ credibility also depends on the media “brands” they are affiliated with.

“Part of what makes journalists credible, or at least worthy of reading, are institutions that publish or broadcast their reports,” Rohr told OurBlook.

All this creates a catch-22 for “citizen communicators” (Weaver’s term), who write for stand-alone sites like The Rapidian, not offshoots of established news entities.
Building The Rapidian brand requires a steady stream of consistent, quality content from citizen writers. But that can be challenging to produce when you’re not taken seriously as a reporter.

Just ask Rapidan writer Lindsay McHolme, whose interview request led to a virtual flogging early last month by Super Happy Fun Time Burlesque front man Corey Ruffin.

McHolme initially contacted Ruffin about her op-ed response to an SHFT ad that contained the line: “the girls’ clavicles are showing from starvation”. The 30-year-old literacy coordinator felt the verbiage undercut performers’ value and demonstrated “ignorance about starvation and poverty”—a grim reality for many of the refugee families she works with.

Unlike the 2008 Grand Rapids Press blog that led to a cancelled SHFT show, McHolme’s op-ed would not have resulted in material loss for the burlesque. And yet, Ruffin’s reply to McHolme, which she shared with this reporter, entirely lacked the civility (not to mention cogency) of SHFT’s official response to Press reporter John Gonzales.

“I am astonished you would feel ready to print an opinion article under the auspices of a ‘citizen journalist’ with such limited background with our show,” begins the multi-part retort.

“How many times have you said ‘I’m starving’…?” Ruffin’s next e-mail continued. “Next time you do I’m gonna show up with an anorexic and play her rib cage like it’s a marimba…. Go to f---ing Cambodia and feed the f---ing Cambodian slave boys your breast milk, and then I’ll take your statements a little more seriously.”

After deriding McHolme’s journalistic qualifications and person over three e-mails, Ruffin annotated the exchange, then posted it in its entirety on a Facebook page visible to more than 700 friends.

Identity Crisis

Of course, McHolme isn’t the only citizen writer to encounter resistance from potential sources. But her extreme example demonstrates just how differently some view citizen journalists and paid reporters.

“I feel that the public, on occasion, tends to hold us to a lower standard… [and doesn’t] want to be involved in our stories,” says Michael Tuffelmire, 29, another Rapidian writer. “This is true “about 35 to 40 percent of the time.”

Even when people do agree to be interviewed, they don’t always have journalism in mind. Tuffelmire recalls one source, a local business owner, whose main interest was free advertising.

“The owner didn’t want me to talk about anything at all with his business practices, even though they were extremely positive,” says Tuffelmire. “He just wanted me to be a large advertisement for his product.”

The underlying issue here seems to be a crisis of perception—one that starts with “real” journalism and trickles down to citizen journalism, a relative newcomer to the field.

“Journalism is so broad now,” says Rapid Growth Media editor Juliet Bennett Rylah. “It’s har
d to say how the public perceives a ‘real’ journalist.”

Traditional journalism’s painful attempts to reinvent itself into something both relevant and lucrative in the digital age have generated myriad platforms for delivering and engaging news content. They’ve also created a lot of confusion about what journalism actually is.

Against the backdrop of this perplexing journalistic landscape, how can a citizen reporter ever hope to be taken seriously?

Well, for one thing, we can start by taking ourselves more seriously.

“I think that citizen reporters should not look at themselves as less than full blown reporters,” says Tuffelmire, who has “no training whatsoever as a journalist.”

Tuffelmire says he works closely with his Rapidian mentor on developing stories, and he actively reflects on and learns from past mistakes. He also had business cards printed up.

Citizen writers can also benefit immensely from online resources like those offered by the Rapidian and groups like Poynter and the International Center for Journalists. The Magazine Writer’s Handbook is another great resource for learning how to conduct interviews, write a strong lede, and structure stories.

If nothing else, citizen reporters must learn to avoid bias. It’s a huge credibility-killer and, I think, the main reason people relegate us to blogger status.

“When you write your opinions as a citizen journalist, and not just as a Facebook status, logic should be your guide,” advises Rylah. “If emotion is your guide, you need to be writing poetry.”

“You have to understand both sides of a story,” she continues. “Neutrality can be achieved by letting other people speak for you via quotes.”

Even in op-ed writing, Rylah suggests intentional word choice, avoiding superlatives, and paying attention to tense.

“Is all this in the past tense, because if so, you’re probably applying blame and toeing the line between a well-stated op-ed and whining,” says Rylah. “When you look to the future, that shows an interest in problem solving.”

Growing Pains

The community at large can also help improve the quality of citizen reporting by providing constructive feedback.

he Rapidian site was intentionally designed to facilitate dialogue between writers and readers via comments and “voting up”. Citizen journalists serious about improving their work will view criticism as a learning opportunity.

Sources can help cultivate local writers, too, by treating them the same way they would treat “real” journalists.

If you think a writer is taking the wrong approach, suggest an alternative. Feel like a writer approached you in an unprofessional way? Tell them, or contact Rapidian staff, who can coach them in that area. If a citizen reporter is entirely beyond redemption, simply decline comment.

Finally, I want to encourage Rapidian staff in their (already laudable) efforts to define the Rapidian brand and curate our community multilogue—responsibilities that promise to get harder over time.

In order for The Rapidian to progress from experiment to credible news source, hard questions will need to be answered: Are The Rapidian’s defining values changing as it matures? Does hyperlocality have the same resonance post-pilot, or would including other regional voices diversify and broaden the conversation? Coming full circle, is the Rapidian viable (read, “fundable”) in its current incarnation, and how might new revenue streams impact its values? Stay tuned…

As The Rapidian grows up, I’m hoping the site’s reporters can mature with it. While I definitely think readers and The Rapidian both have roles to play, I believe the onus is on writers to make citizen journalism “real” journalism by training themselves, exhibiting professionalism, and continuously improving their craft. 

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.


Excellent article.  I am encouraged that you put the effort into defining ways in which Reporters can develop their skills and their stories.  I would add the AP Style Guide as another valuable resource.  

I also think the business cards that Michael mentioned are a good idea.  I have several Rapidian cards, but I do feel hesitant about giving one to a potential souce with my handwritten contact information on it.  It just doesn't seem as "professional" 

@Steven: I actually just purchased the electronic AP Style Guide. I think there's even an iPhone app too! I was considering joining some journalist association so I'd have more access to training and a press pass.

Woof. Just did a quick Google search and found the National Association of Citizen Journalists. Wish I'd known about that before I wrote this article ;)

I made some supercute business cards on Zazzle. They weren't that expensive. Vista Print has free ones but you can't customize them the way you do on Zazzle.

Thanks for reading and commenting!!

Those are very helpful links.  I found a cheap "hardcopy" of the AP Style Guide at Bargain Books for like $3.00.   

I do like the Rapidian Reporter Cards.  There's something a bit iconic about the orange "R" now.  Maybe if I could make some sort of laminated badge...

Well, thank you...I think this was a much needed article.  I think all of the points you bring up are very good.  The labor of love that this is for the journalists especially.  It takes time to report and write these things...and not being compensated. 

I've also been encouraged to see some of the recent articles written by people from our local academic institutions.  I think that is win/win situation for everyone and definitely lends credibility to the Rapidian. 

 as for the "real" journalist debate... ironically, my experience in public writing started because of my disgust with a certain local news outlet constantly publishing material on a 7th grade reading level, lack of editing (spellcheck is on EVERY computer), lack of serious content etc... I became a watchdog criticizing them publicly about their watered down cut and paste b.s.... people were so into what i was doing that when they realized that their online readership was logging on to see what i was doing they gave me my own column... so a citizen journalist CAN have a serious impact... the digital revolution did a lot for music...why not journalism? It really isn't hard to create better content than most mainstream outlets are dumping on us. When they see that we've stolen their audience they will be forced to recognize us

@scott: i'm always a little amused by the "real" journalist debate. my career in journalism started because i had a few journalist friends and, after reading their work, i didn't feel like it was beyond what i could do. i think rohr's quote is right on the money--people take me seriously because i write for an online magazine they've heard of, not because of any specialized training that i have.

it's interesting that the "what is citizen journalism?" issue has been completely sidestepped by some internationally-focused groups. i volunteered for world pulse's voices of our future project recently. the question isn't even really addressed on their site (though perhaps it is discussed in their training). they are far more interested in using citizen journalism to incorporate global voices than wasting time on defining the term.


This is a great article. Thank you for writting it! Hopefully this will encourage others to become citizen journalists.

Don't make excuses for yourself as a citizen journalist. People love to talk about themselves. And in their hearts, they know that any publicity is good publicity. If they don't want to talk to you, that means you have to work harder. I am sure new reporters for major media outlets have the same experiences. 

@steven depolo: point well taken. maybe this is my fundraiser background, but i always try to frame things in terms of exclusivity and benefit to the person i'm talking to.

i think the biggest mistake cit journos (and fundraisers) make is that they assume people care about them. they might, but i've found it's best not to assume that.

when i email sources for rapidian articles, i usually put "media inquiry from the rapidian" or something in the subject line, then start with "i am writing an article about XXX, and i would really like to include you in the piece. your Blah Blah Blah project is so vital to the community, and i want to ensure that as many [insert adjective like "young", "progressive", whatever word reflects how the source thinks about their group here] community members find out about it as possible. The Rapidian readership really reflects this [repeat adjective] group, and the site averages 4 billion hits per day."

If its an event, I always ask if there's a dress rehearsal or something that I can attend and who they recommend for me to talk to. I ALWAYS start with the assumption that people are going to take me seriously, make is easy/cheap for me to cover their event, and value the fact that I selected them for this publicity opportunity.

I think the key is that most people don't know not to take us seriously, until we project a lack of confidence and approach them like we're asking for a favor.