From Rodney King to George Floyd – How Citizen Journalism is Changing the News Landscape

By: Aiden Bannon

May 2, 2023

Story highlights

  • The assault on Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department marked a turning point in the volume that a citizen’s voice, and video camera, can have.
  • The recorded murder of George Floyd in 2020, a new and modern form of citizen journalism, incited national upheaval and calls for police reform.
  • David Coddon, a professor of journalism at San Diego State University, speaks to the ethical considerations of citizen journalism. “At some point it becomes a matter of personal responsibility,” Coddon said.

San Diego – Now, at a time when almost everyone is carrying a camera and information is shared at a rate previously unprecedented, citizen journalism is not rare. Social media is overloaded with posts that contain some variation of “news.” Individuals will upload content to social media with the intention of providing the world with updates and information that they deem important.

This graphic was created by Aiden Bannon
Graphic by: Aiden Bannon

First, it is important to define citizen journalism. In most academic and professional circles, citizen journalism is defined as any instance in which an individual with no formal journalistic training records or attempts to write the news.

The Rise of Citizen Journalism

One of the first, and arguably the most important, instances of citizen journalism came in 1991: with the brutal beating inflicted on Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The assault was captured by a bystander on a hand-held video camera. According to an article by the Los Angeles Times, the tape was sold to KTLA, a Los Angeles-based broadcast news company. It wound up being played on television in homes all across the country.

This was recognized as a groundbreaking incident due to the combination of handheld video cameras and broadcast television. Most news before this incident was gathered and reported upon by trained professionals. This incident marked the beginning of a new perspective in the way that news could be gathered and reported.

Since 1991, citizen journalism has been employed by witnesses of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and military coups to provide the world with footage and information to record these historic happenings. Footage of the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001 was captured on a handheld video camera. The 2011 tsunami in Japan was captured by witnesses on their cell phone cameras. There are countless examples of countless instances in which ordinary citizens provided the world with the news.

The timeline below explores the evolution of those examples. From the beating of Rodney King, to the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, to the murder of George Floyd and everything in-between. This includes the attack on the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. It also includes two rivaling publications which battle the pros and cons of citizen journalism. All of these events mark important times in the evolution of how citizens can make their voices heard using the technological means possessed at the time.

Infographic created by Aiden Bannon
Graphic by: Aiden Bannon

David Coddon, a professor of Journalism at San Diego State University, mentioned the Arab Spring protests are the first instance of citizen journalism that comes to mind for him. The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests in North Africa and the Middle East in the 2010s. 

“The first one that comes to mind would be the Arab Spring incident, which is the first time that I recall citizens using their smartphones to document an important historical moment, and what a difference that made in that movement. It was at that time that I saw the value of so-called citizen journalism. Before that point I was a little skeptical of it, and I didn’t appreciate its potential, but now I do,” Coddon said.

In the early 2000s, the advent of blogging got on the nerves of more than a few journalists. One of the earlier forms of citizen journalism, blogging allowed anyone, especially those not associated with any major news organization, the ability to publish stories online.

An expert named Vincent Maher, professor of multimedia journalism at Rhodes University in South Africa sees citizen journalism in a particularly negative light. Maher published an essay in 2005 called “Citizen Journalism is Dead!” The Guardian wrote an article reporting on this essay which includes a powerful excerpt. Though the essay is dated, and many changes have occurred since then, his perspective still holds somewhat true. 

As noted in the essay, “This mess we call the blogging versus journalism debate is anchored on a twist of the truth wrapped in a false promise: that this blogging army is co-ordinated and uniform in its intentions. Forget it, you’ve been conned by an elite and persuasive group of pissed-off anti-paperians,” Maher said. 

While his take is definitely passionate, it does hold valid ground. Bloggers and other citizen journalists have no responsibility to follow a code of ethics the same way that professional journalists do. Professional journalists are trained to follow a code of ethics provided by the Society of Professional Journalists. Everything that we read online should be taken with a grain of salt, but what is to be done when we can’t tell true journalism from citizen journalism?

The Power of Citizen Journalism in the Digital Age

Blogging isn’t at the forefront of this citizen journalism conversation anymore. It’s now the access that we have to social media.

Open Twitter and you will see children, parents, and anyone in between updating their followers on the breaking news regarding former President Donald Trump’s indictment in New York. Open TikTok and you will see videos posted by anonymous teenagers that capture a high speed car chase. Open Instagram and you will see infographics put together by anyone with an interest and some free time outlining crime statistics in Chicago’s metropolitan districts. 

One of the most well known modern instances of citizen journalism came in 2020. The murder of George Floyd was captured by a bystander’s cell phone camera. It was uploaded to social media websites. It was eventually broadcast on various news channels across the country.

The violent murder was available for everyone to see on social media. Almost immediately protests broke out all over the country. Floyd’s name and face became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. The officer who knelt on his neck, Derek Chauvin, has been sentenced to 252 months in prison, partly due to the video evidence captured by a citizen. 

Amina Idoui, a journalism student at SDSU, shares some interesting takes on the topic of citizen journalism. She believes that impacting social change is one of the most powerful ways that modern citizen journalism can be used. 

“The Black Lives Matter movement is such a great example,” Idoui said. “It allows the people to speak to things that are really close to them.” 

Idoui said that there is a certain amount of accountability that citizen journalism provides. 

“This allows people in positions of power like the police to be recorded, and these instances to be shown,” Idoui said.

While she does believe that citizen journalism is mostly a tool for good, Idoui recognizes that it sometimes can’t be representative of an entire issue. 

”Citizen journalism only captures a person’s lived experience. It’s valid. It’s true. But it’s only a sliver of the real picture… It’s not an accurate reflection of what’s going on at large. It is a piece of the puzzle, and I think that that is how citizen journalism fits in,” Idoui said.

Emily Galante, another journalism student at SDSU, also believes that the recorded murder of George Floyd is one of the most prominent examples of modern day citizen journalism. She believes that the capturing of the murder provided gravity and reality that traditional journalism might not have been able to convey.

“I just think that the video itself was so shocking in a way that I don’t think a reporter’s writing could portray. I don’t think there would have been words to show how terrible it was, and show the gravity of the situation,” Galante said.

Navigating Ethics in an Era of Instant Information

While experts like Maher argue against the integrity of citizen journalists, some experts argue that citizen journalism is a positive tool. A book called The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, a professor of law at the Harvard School of Law, addresses the benefits of citizen journalism. “The entry barrier they posed no longer offers a condensation point for the large organizations that once dominated the information environment,” Benkler wrote in the book.

Benkler argues that citizen journalism takes the news out of the hands of industry. It can now be reported upon by anyone with a desire to do so. Rather than our news being controlled by corporations with potentially harmful agendas, ordinary people can supply us with information that can be called news. 

Options for avoiding ethical pitfalls are limited. The worry among some is that social media websites will begin to regulate postings.

“I hope that we don’t come to a situation where there’s any kind of substantial regulation of social media because I think it does more harm than good overall,” Coddon said. 

Coddon argues that responsibility and education would be the most beneficial solutions to curbing journalistic mistakes among untrained citizen journalists. 

“If we could find a way to make personal responsibility a given with social media use, that would go a long way toward making citizen journalism not only more effective and responsible, but more welcome,” Coddon said.

Though journalists like Maher may be put off or threatened by the idea of bloggers and citizen journalists, Coddon says that for him that time has passed. 

“When the idea of citizen journalism was coined, as a journalist I felt rather offended by that because there was an implication that anybody could be a journalist, and that the training one has had didn’t mean that much anymore,” said Coddon. “I’ve come around to accept the idea that the average person can, if not practice journalism, at least perform journalistic activities that can be positive. For me that is a big gesture of acceptance.”

Citizen journalism will remain a hot topic of conversation among experts and academics and it certainly will evolve with new media technologies. Issues regarding the ethics and quality relevant to citizen journalism are at the center of this discussion. Whether or not citizen journalism is a good thing, only time will tell.