Critiquing citizen journalism

By Ivy Hillman '12
August 26, 2011

This month Mark Hemmer ’11 shared his undergraduate research at a professional conference where presentations are typically given by university faculty or graduate students.

The annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication was held in St. Louis August 10. Hemmer’s research was a collaborative effort with Dr. Sara Netzley, assistant professor of journalism and associate chairperson of the Department of Communication.

“It’s quite rare for a recent college grad who’s not in graduate school to present at this conference. In fact, I suspect Mark was one of the youngest presenters,” said Netzley, assistant professor and associate chairperson of the Department of Communication.

The title of Hemmer and Netzley’s research paper is “No Experience Necessary: The Perceived Credibility of Citizen Journalism.”

“Our research focused on answering a couple of questions that we deemed important given the direction of the mass media in the last few decades. Mainly, we were concerned with ‘citizen journalism,’” Hemmer said.

Their research also focused on today’s technology.

“Citizens reporting news has been happening for ages, but not with the sheer enormity that it is today due to the Internet,” Hemmer said.

Technology has advanced so much today that it is easier than ever for anyone to act as a reporter. iPads, iPhones and other similar products are allowing people to report what they see any time and from almost anywhere. Popular news organizations are now even accepting citizen work.

Hemmer and Netzley’s work also focused on how easily citizen work can be distinguished from professional journalism.

“The hope is that professional journalism is still recognized and heralded, not only for its role in social activism and government accountability but also because journalistic training is heavy on accuracy, fairness and ethics. Citizen journalism is held to no standards,” Hemmer said.

Hemmer and Netzley used a survey to address how distinguishable the work is. They administered two versions of a survey to students in communication classes. The surveys included a short story and questions about its accuracy, completeness and fairness. One version’s story was labeled as being written by a citizen and the other was labeled as being written by a professional. The research revealed that students do not differentiate between citizen work and professional work.

“That result didn’t support our hypothesis and led to an intriguing dialogue about the future and the role education plays in preparing future news consumers,” Hemmer said.

Though the survey results were discouraging for an aspiring journalist, the potential to share his important research on a national stage was a unique reward.

“I was confident that our work would be accepted for the AEJMC conference. Our topic was current and relevant and we put in many hours of hard work to make the research credible and thorough,” Hemmer said.

“I’m glad he took advantage of such a unique opportunity, and he knocked it out of the park during his presentation,” Netzley said.