Online news sites powered by ordinary users offer different points of view
VANCOUVER - Brian McNeil wrote his first news story almost three years ago,
compiling a 300-word item about a lawsuit involving retail giant Wal-Mart.
From his home just outside Brussels, Belgium, the
analyst borrowed facts from stories on several online news
websites and a
media release, and posted his story on Wikinews, a lesser-known cousin of
With no formal journalism training, McNeil has since helped pen dozens of
items on the site, one of several allowing ordinary people to create and
disseminate news online.
"It's just something I actually quite enjoyed doing - it's satisfying to see
your work finished and up there," says McNeil, 39, who has also started
conducting his own interviews to gather information.
"Anybody can have a go at it and build themselves a reputation. It's a
personally satisfying thing to do."
There's a growing number of websites that allow users to contribute to the
newsgathering process in some way - sometimes called citizen journalism or
The models vary widely: some sites offer first-hand accounts or video from
witnesses; others feature material rewritten by users from mainstream media
outlets; while still others ask members to gather original material and call
sources for information and quotes.
Some, such as CNN's IReport.com
, are associated with established,
traditional news providers, but many of the emerging websites featuring
user-generated news operate on their own.
These sites are becoming more popular as the news industry struggles to
adapt to an age where users want to be involved in a two-way dialogue rather
than be passive consumers of information.
And so far, no one has quite figured out the answer.
"It's very much trial (and) error to try and work out how it's going to
work," says McNeil. "It's so new that it is just a grand experiment."
Skeptics are quick to point out potential problems with letting anyone with
an Internet connection write the news.
It's more difficult to enforce standards of objectivity and accountability
when the anonymous masses are behind the stories, not to mention the
potential for plagiarism or misinformation.
These are concerns that NowPublic.com
- a Vancouver-based site that
encourages both original content and links to stories on other news websites
- is trying to grapple with.
The site was recently redesigned with added tools for visitors to assess
content, such as a rating system to rank the credibility of contributors.
But the website's founder, Michael Tippett, says objectivity is less
important than ensuring readers have access to as many points of view as
"(Just as) you come to respect a journalist who writes for a news
organization because you recognize that news organization itself has
credibility, you can look at the NowPublic members the same way," says
"It's not necessary that one person is completely dispassionate about a
subject. ... We believe that if you have a number of different points of
view represented in a story, that the truth will emerge."
Sites like NowPublic can't compete with the resources of traditional news
outlets, says Tippett, and that's not the point.
Rather, Tippett says the goal is to supplement - not replace - what's
already out there.
"Our view is that traditional media makes us better, and we can make
traditional media better," says Tippett, whose site recently inked a deal
with The Associated Press to share eye-witness photos and videos.
"There are so many people in the world who are able to, in many cases, beat
traditional media to the scene of emerging news."
, also based in Vancouver, is leaving the balanced,
up-to-the-minute news reports to the professionals. Instead, it asks people
affected by the news of the day to tell their stories.
Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, the D.C. sniper, the London
bombings - these are stories, says Orato editor-in-chief Paul Sullivan, best
told by people living through them.
"We encourage people who are what I would call 'participant observers,' who
have a point of view because the story is happening to them," says Sullivan.
"The closer you can get to the actual story, the actual experience, the
actual event, the happier I am. What you get is a different kind of news, a
more personal news."
These types of websites provide an exciting and valuable addition to the
news, but it's not journalism, says Mary McGuire, who teaches journalism at
Carleton University in Ottawa.
"They're contributing to the newsgathering process but they're not really
doing journalism," says McGuire.
"What you've got are a lot of ways in which the public is contributing
facts, details, observations, pictures, opinions to the gathering of
McGuire says a better term than citizen journalism would be networked
journalism, as users engage in a collaborative process that involves both
professionals and amateurs.
As online news continues to evolve, McGuire says much of that collaboration
will still happen on traditional, established news sites that readers
"The news-consuming public still needs and wants places to go where they can
be guaranteed that somebody's put all the pieces together and provided some
context and analysis and double-checked things," she says.
Even though these sites will likely never replace traditional news outlets -
and most say they don't want to - McGuire says they will no doubt shape the
future of the industry.
"What they're doing is challenging the mainstream media to change their
ways, to improve what they offer online and to respond to a public that does
want to be part of the process."