The report by Washington Post columnist and former visiting fellow at the institute, John Kelly, has suggested that journalists' relationship with their audience has fundamentally changed and, criticisms of user-generated content aside, citizens producing 'news' content is now a part of this.
Traditional media outlets, such as TV news stations and newspapers, are now also the users, while their audiences can choose to be producers, Kelly has argued in the study, which looks at the origins of citizen journalism and founding sites such as Slashdot and OhMyNews.
Technological advancements - in hardware and software - have been the largest driving force behind this change: "The internet provides, if not a substitute medium, then a parallel one [to the established 'mainstream media'], a low-cost distribution mechanism that is newspaper delivery truck, paper boy, and radio and TV transmitter all in one."
The rise of citizen journalism has also been encouraged by both the mainstream media's invitation to users, via forums and commenting systems, and changing levels of trust in the media and journalists, the research has suggested.
While the idea of public or civic journalism - involving the audience - can be traced back to the 1960s, technology and the internet has accelerated this trend, it said.
Journalists may also be increasingly more receptive to their changing relationship with their audience, though 'there is much contained within the phrase [user-generated content] to make journalists uneasy':
"'Content' is a word that calls to mind a commodity, something bland used to fill a hole. 'Generated' isn’t much better, suggesting as it does material that’s created in some vaguely spontaneous way’," Kelly said in a release accompanying the report.
Much UGC news content of recent years has gone beyond this definition, it is noted in the report, which is named 'Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold' referring to the role of a non-journalist in breaking the story of 'Canoe man' John Darwin.
According to the report, citizen journalists can benefit news organisations by reducing costs, crowdsourcing views on complex topics, expanding news coverage and by making the journalistic process less opaque for other news consumers.
Potential problems for news organisations using citizen journalists are also discussed in the research: the question of who is responsible for UGC content and the cost of moderation.
The benefits of citizen journalism for the citizen are also highlighted, including making individuals more interested in their communities and demystifying the political process.
"It can excite them [citizens] about the things the best journalism strives to do: explain, crusade, call to account," the report said.
The frequency with which these facets of journalism are achieved by so-called citizen journalists is questionable however, the paper stated.
"[O]verall the percentages of people who contribute user-generated content are very low, arguably much lower than the furore over the whole issue would seem to warrant," according to the research.
Citizen journalism is here to stay
But journalists must accept that the dynamic between audience and journalist has changed and must find new, collaborative ways to tell stories, Kelly argued. While the rise of new forms of newsgathering, such as citizen journalism, and revenues may not be fast enough to compensate for the decline in Western news media, he wrote, 'the impulses underlying the rise of citizen journalist are here to stay'.
"[T]he question 'Should there be citizen journalism?' is beside the point. Journalists must accept that the dynamic has changed. They must see the public as more than an inert, monolithic audience."
"Mainstream news outlets that neglect to allow their readers to participate will risk losing those readers. In a culture that increasingly views news as a commodity, users will look for differentiating factors as they choose their news sources. The quality and legitimacy of the product will be aspects - perhaps even the most important ones - but so too will be the extent to which the media responds to its customers and gives them useful tools to customize, share and contribute to the news."
The full report can be downloaded at this link.