Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Conduct in conflict: Engagement with citizen journalists in war zones

Audrey Thibert served as fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics from 2022-2023 and is an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Nicholas Lemann, longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, thinks the best citizen journalism happens by accident, when a member of the public is at the scene of a sudden disaster and can communicate what is happening to others. 

Recently, Palestinian citizen journalists have been turning to Instagram to share harrowing experiences of the war in Gaza. According to the New York Times, citizen journalists such as Motaz Azaiza and Hind Khoudary have gained Instagram followers from around the world for their raw and heartbreaking posts.

“A war is a moment when you have a whole lot of people who have real-time access to be able to take pictures and shoot video of newsworthy events as they unfold and post them,” Lemann said.

Associate Professor Lindsay Palmer of the UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication said citizen journalism can help the world see and better understand conflicts that might otherwise stay out of sight. 

“In places where foreign correspondence movement is really limited, like Gaza, having images coming out of there from people who are already there can, ideally, give us a clear picture of what’s really happening on the ground,” Palmer said.

The groundswell of people following Palestinian citizen journalists might show a desire for real-time access to information on Gaza. But a distrust of Western media might also be at play. 

Al Jazeera, a Qatari state-owned Arabic-language news television network, recently interviewed media experts and Arab journalists for a news story that was critical of Western media, arguing that it is “publishing unsubstantiated claims, telling only one side of the story, and painting Palestinians as nothing more than objects in Hamas’s hands.” 

In an era when trust for Western news media is low and on-the-ground professional reporting is not always possible, citizen journalism can fill a gap. But its importance in conflict reporting also prompts some ethical questions: What happens when citizen journalism stands alone, existing outside of the context of professional news? And how can professional journalists and news organizations engage with citizen journalists in an ethical manner?

Lemann, who is also the Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said that despite the rise in citizen journalism, “[it] cannot serve as a proxy for professional journalism.”

In Lemann’s New Yorker article, “Amateur Hour,” he examined the rise of citizen journalism in 2006, when traditional media were being critiqued as biased and out of touch and “everybody loved everything about the internet.” In the article, Lemann said citizen journalism should function as an addendum to traditional media, rather than a replacement. He said his argument still holds true today.

“What I’m arguing against is the idea that because citizen journalism is possible, professional journalism has no value,” Lemann said. “Because that’s not the case. I think there’s a lot of anger right now that is causing people to say that.”

When citizen journalism stands alone, there is a higher probability for misinformation – unintentional factual errors – to be spread, according to a 2021 report on citizen journalism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike most mainstream news outlets, citizen journalists do not have access to real-time fact-checking teams, deepening the possibility of rapidly spreading false information online.

According to Lemann, the strength of professional journalists, inside and outside of war zones, is their ability to use resources and training to get to the bottom of a situation —  to provide background, research and context, without which journalism falls short of its fundamental responsibility to provide the public with comprehensive and accurate information.

So while professional journalists cannot always be on the ground in a conflict zone, and citizen journalists cannot always accurately contextualize, there is an opportunity for the two to engage with each other ethically.

In conflict zones, the demand for citizen journalists has increased as access for professional journalists has decreased. There has been an overall drop in newsroom employment. A 2021 Pew Research Center analysis found employment dropped by 26% from 2008 to 2021. In 2023, the media industry announced at least 17,436 job cuts – the highest ever recorded number of cuts, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Further, very few news organizations send correspondents to war zones anymore, and they rarely take work from freelancers in war zones. Between 2014 and 2022, 335 journalists were killed in war zones, according to Reporters Without Borders. As of January 3, 77 journalists have been killed in Gaza. 

Matthieu Aikins, author of “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” and a journalist who first went to Afghanistan as a freelancer in 2008, said he took risks at the beginning of his career that he wouldn’t be able to take today.

“A lot of large media companies no longer take work from freelancers in war zones,” Aikins said. “They don’t want to be responsible for freelancers. If they take our work, then they’re responsible for us being there, and they don’t want to be liable for us. So it’s really a kind of corporate decision to reduce their own liability.”

Aikins said it can be dangerous for local journalists because their work is often oppositional to powerful figures and governments. He also said it creates a double standard.

Palmer said citizen journalists are also often not compensated for their contributions.

“News organizations will gladly take those images and air them, sometimes without even having checked if they’re accurate, but they won’t compensate the people for the fact they risk their embodied lives to capture the stories,” Palmer said. “And they also don’t protect them the way they protect their own foreign correspondents – they don’t give them body armor, they don’t give them insurance, a lot of times they won’t evacuate them. But they’ll gladly take their content.”

Aikins said more work needs to be done to preserve a space for independent journalists to cover conflicts while still addressing concerns about safety and legal liability.

“We continue to rely on the work of local journalists and drivers who are risking their lives and who are much more likely to be killed, kidnapped, intimidated or arrested,” Aikins said. “So if it’s somehow unacceptable for [Western journalists] to take risks, then why are we okay with them taking on risks? The fact of the matter is, if no journalist took risks there would be no reporting from war zones.”

In places like Afghanistan, “reporting in exile” is the only hope for the media. Afghan journalist Zaki Daryabi was forced into exile in October 2021 after the Taliban came to power and is the publisher and executive director of the independent Afghan newspaper Etilaatroz. His newspaper relies heavily on citizen journalists. 

“You see a lot of citizens from Afghanistan are providing reports from Afghanistan from different provinces,” Daryabi said. “And they see that the exile media are working from different countries.”

While Afghanistan is not actively at war, the de facto government of the Taliban has issued ongoing attacks on press freedoms, according to Human Rights Watch. The Taliban monitors personal social media accounts that criticize the Taliban or local authorities, so civilians have begun sending messages and videos on WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook and Twitter directly to Etilaatroz for them to post and distribute on the same platforms.

“The importance of free media is also providing a voice to the citizens, they are trying to help us to be alive,” Daryabi said. “The flow of information from Afghanistan should be alive.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.