The protests in Iran and other recent events have highlighted the possibilities and pitfalls – of the social networking tool Twitter for journalism, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. And it has become clear that citizen journalism will become ever more important to the media.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

THE Guardian, Agence France-Presse, the Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, the Times and the Evening Standard all reported British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s unexpected Twitter tribute to Michael Jackson. “Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael,” it read.

It was worth reporting, since it was so out of character. It sounded like a British politician was trying to show he was not as out of touch with popular sentiment as recent events suggested.

Then the foreign office denied the minister had a Twitter account. Two university students owned up to the parody, saying they wanted to show that you have to verify what you learn on the internet.

Other fake Twitter accounts turned up. There was one for Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and one for Nick Griffin, head of the resurgent right-wing British National Party.

This came as everyone was raving about the role of Twitter in the Iranian protests and how the US government saw it as so important to keeping communication going that it asked Twitter to postpone a maintenance shutdown.

Taken with the iconic cellphone camera images of a young woman dying after being shot at a demonstration, the Iranian uprising was seen by many as a watershed moment in the rise of citizen journalism.

The concept of citizen journalism is used in many different ways. Essentially, it refers to the capacity new media gives to the ordinary citizen to gather and disseminate information in a way that used to be the preserve of journalists. Citizens have always had that capacity, but the internet enhances it infinitely.

There has never been the kind of formal distinction between journalists and others that has existed in professions such as law and medicine. But journalists have controlled access to the mass media, and the internet now gives citizens the capacity to speak to the world directly, without going through such gatekeepers. So where we used to have amateur footage, now we have citizen journalism; where we had witnesses, now we have cellphone camera footage. This can be empowering, as Iran showed us. It also has its risks, as the Miliband incident demonstrated .

I was in Europe in the first few days of the Iran protests, and it was striking how much the conventional media, such as CNN and the BBC, were relying on citizen journalism. It was of a quality that these channels would not usually use, but it had a gritty realism and authenticity.

These channels had to warn that they were sometimes uncertain where and when it was shot. But their standards of verification had clearly shifted, because they were prepared to use it nevertheless. Or maybe they felt, with their own correspondents expelled or restricted, that they had no other way to keep up the flow of information.

A few things became apparent. The first was that citizen reporting is going to become increasingly important and legitimate. It is often reliable, or at least as reliable as conventional journalism. It is at its best when it combines with conventional media — as when CNN was vetting videos on its website . Standards of verification are shifting, for better or for worse. It is not clear what ethics apply.

Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, said it all: “Citizen journalism is rapidly emerging as an invaluable part of the gathering of the news…. The best thing is that anyone can be a citizen journalist. All you need is passion, a little training and a desire to tell a good story.”

And having a good story to tell is the essence of it. Citizen journalism is only interesting when it gives voice to those excluded from the mainstream media, such as young Iranian women. Attempts to use it in SA have fallen flat because it brings forth much of the same voices we hear anyway, telling the same suburban stories. It is when citizen journalism gives voice to those we seldom hear, such as those protesting about service delivery, or the jobless and homeless, that it will start to enrich our media mix.

Maybe that is why the government is dragging its feet on facilitating cheap and fast universal internet access. As the Iranians have learnt, it gives a lot of power to a lot of ordinary people.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared on 7 July 2009.