Six Rules of Journalism Every Citizen Journalist Should Know

October 15, 2013

Social media and the mobile movement are giving average people the power to gather, dispense, and report news and information on public platforms. A job traditionally reserved for professional journalists, is now being placed into the hands of all citizens. This shift is giving professional journalists challenges and advantages they never anticipated.

The great journalism debate is whether or not citizen journalism is a positive media development. They don’t have the same training as a professional journalist, follow the same code of ethics, or stay within boundaries great journalists abide by. And most break the cardinal rule of journalism, which is the proper use of grammar.

While social media has completely disrupted tradition journalism, one thing is for sure; a well-written story can’t be beat, regardless of where it comes from. So what does it take for a citizen journalist to write like a pro?

What’s the Story?

First things first, find the story! “Is it really that simple” you wonder? Yes… well, somewhat. It is, however, an absolutely imperative takeaway. Think of it this way: if you’re not interested in what you’re writing, your audience won’t be interested in reading it. Sometimes, the story isn’t where you anticipate it to be. A good journalist flushes out the best story. In the midst of writing, a more interesting angle may pop up. Follow your instinct and write the best angle, even if it means starting all over.

Grammatically Speaking

Social media, especially blogs, are no longer the casual platforms they used to be. They are powerful tools for delivering information to an audience. You want to ensure your writing doesn’t have typos and bad grammar. Always write, edit, rewrite, edit, and repeat. Be very thorough with grammar checks. Referencing the AP Stylebook is a great way to help you understand appropriate writing. It is a vital tool for journalists. The newer versions even include a social media section.

Appeal to Emotions

A good journalist knows how to show a story rather than tell it. Show your audience the story using your writing. Accomplish this by using an active voice. Here is an interesting – and Halloween appropriate – way to challenge active and passive voice: If you can insert “by zombies” after the verb, you have passive voice. Example: She was chased by Zombies=Passive; Zombies chased her=Active. We have Rebecca Johnson, a professor of culture and ethics at USMC, to thank for that incredible tidbit!

Check and Double Check Facts

NEVER purposefully lie. If you aren’t sure about something, look it up, and always remember to properly credit a source of information. Accuracy is what sets you apart from an amateur writer. Dependability is your greatest asset in building trust and respect in digital media. With anyone – and their dog – able to post on the Internet, you want to be sure your information is always accurate. And don’t be shy about posting corrections if you make mistakes.

Be Ethical

Anyone choosing to write on a public platform should adhere to a code of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has a great list of ethics that professional journalists follow, and can be a great resource when deciding on your own code.  Put together a great list specific to your goals as a writer and follow it.

Network, Network, Network

Work your network. Attending different events and keeping the contact information of the people you meet can really save your writing down the road. Using a professional reference in any story gives it great credibility. Moral of the story: keep those business cards people are giving you. You never know when their expertise will come in handy.

Journalism can, at times, be a very thankless job. When you produce a great story/article, one you can really be proud of, there is no better feeling. So, type on citizen journalists, but always remember: you’re only as good as your last story!

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