Larry Atkins

teaches journalism

at Temple University

and Arcadia University

The Minnesota bridge collapse two weeks ago was a banner event for citizen journalism. CNN received hundreds of "I-reports" and dramatic photos from people at the scene.

Videos from eyewitnesses are nothing new. One could assert that Abraham Zapruder's film of the Kennedy assassination was the first I-report. Then there were the Rodney King video, amateur films from Sept. 11, 2001, and vacationer videos from the 2004 South Pacific tsunami.

However, this last year has seen an explosion in citizen journalism. A year ago, CNN launched its I-report program in which it encouraged viewers to share photos and videos of newsworthy events.

More than 450 I-reports were sent in the first 24 hours after the Minneapolis bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, CNN says. In July, more than 6,000 I-reports were submitted. During the Virginia Tech shootings in April, one citizen journalist provided cell-phone video of a police shootout.

CNN isn't the only citizen-journalism sponsor. Active Web sites include NowPublic.com, founded in 2005 and based in Vancouver, Canada, and Associated Content, "the People's Media Company," founded in 2005 by Luke Beatty. The Huffington Post recently started a citizen journalism project, Offthebus.net, which will cover the 2008 presidential election with campaign bloggers, candidate pages and commentary.

Benefits from citizen journalism include dramatic photos and videos that add insight to news events. After all, media outlets and their reporters can't be everywhere.

However, there are drawbacks and dangers that shouldn't be ignored.

For one thing, encouraging I-reports from disaster scenes, crime scenes, or natural-disaster areas could lead people seeking their 15 minutes of fame into dangerous situations. It is inevitable that future I-reporters will chase tornadoes or run toward police shootouts to get a better angle.

Other concerns are bias, conflicts of interest, and credibility. Some citizen journalists might submit reports to promote certain agendas.

Of course, there is the potential for scams, fraud, and doctored photos and video. People might stage phony incidents. The fact-checking and source corroboration involved in mainstream media are usually absent from citizen journalism.

News outlets could start to cut staff and resources, and start relying more on citizen journalists, as a Santa Rosa, Calif., television station recently did.

To avoid these pitfalls, news outlets that solicit citizen journalists should set standards and issue warnings to safeguard amateurs.

The Citizen Media Law Project, jointly affiliated with Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Center for Citizen Media, has been established to provide tools for citizen journalists. It plans to develop a legal guide that will cover insurance; privacy; access to meetings, records and property; and how to use freedom-of-information laws. ChiTownDailyNews.org plans to recruit and train 75 citizen journalists, one for each Chicago neighborhood, to work with editors to produce a daily news report.

Mainstream media have their flaws, including incidents of plagiarism and ethical breaches. However, unlike the army of pajamarati bloggers sitting in their bedrooms, reporters are in the field cultivating sources, interviewing policymakers, investigating and fact-checking. For every insightful I-report, there are thousands of valuable articles, videos and photos produced by veteran reporters.

Citizen journalism is a good thing, but it shouldn't be viewed as the future of journalism, a substitute for professional reporting by established media. Citizen journalism should augment media coverage, not replace it.