The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings demonstrated yet another significant marker for citizen journalism. Felix Salmon, in an excellent post on the Reuters blog, wrote that the manhunt for a suspect in the bombings “in many ways represented the first fully interactive news story.” The crisis again demonstrated the value — and risks — of citizen reporting via social media.

Citizen reporters broke much of the news, though they still needed broadcast media to help spread it. In some cases, citizens were able to capture iconic photos of events. Others were able to tell compelling stories about how the emergency affected their lives, including obeying the “stay in place” request by government officials during the manhunt. It has been widely reported how quickly social communities also got information wrong, including falsely accusing suspects. But I’ve seen a nearly equal number of reports showing how quickly these communities were able to self-correct their own misinformation.

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A crowd crosses the street in order to exit the Boston Marathon. Photo by Michael Hayes

There are plenty of examples of news outlets reaching out to citizens in the wake of a rapid-onset, large-scale crisis to tap into this data. The Boston Marathon bombings were no exception. NBC, for example, used Instagram photos to illustrate how creepy Boston’s empty streets appeared during the manhunt for one of the suspects.

Outside of a crisis event, however, professional news outlets don’t offer the same type of participatory engagement for citizens. That’s not to say that news outlets ignore citizen reporting; indeed, their work is increasingly embraced. But for major outlets, citizen reports tend to be siloed off in many instances, even on a stand-alone site such as CNN’s iReport and Al Jazeera’s Sharek. Other outlets have formed creative partnerships to create citizen-specific sites — Reuters and Global Voices, for instance, or the combination of YouTube, WITNESS and Storyful that makes up the Human Rights Channel.

There are compelling reasons, of course, that emergencies spark this type of reporting mash-up. For instance, I suspect the sheer scope of large-scale emergencies strain newsroom staff and editorial policy to the point of bending the rules. Accepting unprofessional photos and stories to capture the magnitude of each crisis is in many cases standard procedure now.

wrong place, wrong time

There’s also the wrong-place-wrong-time scenario. The unpredictability of a crisis, combined with the ubiquity of mobile phones able to capture photos and videos, mean the average person is far more likely than newsroom staff to be in position to report information about a crisis as it unfolds.

I also think there’s a sense that an emergency event also compels more people to want to participate in news. We saw a tremendous amount of frustration with limited media information in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, which prompted many people to seek other outlets to post their stories, photos, and information. Sites for collecting photos, such as Flickr and Instagram, often serve as a rallying point for people to organize visual information during crisis events. I bet many of these photographers don’t think to share images that might be considered newsworthy in other contacts.

Still, it seems strange to me that a large-scale emergency event should be the only moment when this approach is adopted by news outlets. Couldn’t citizens bring the same value — personal stories, local context, and even volumes of personal data — to nearly any news topic of interest?

In March 2013, Time magazine published “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” Steven Brill’s account of flaws in the U.S. health care system. To their credit, Time has two areas allowing citizens to contribute further stories, one called “Sound Off: Are Medical Bills Too High? Tell Us Why“ and another called, “Social Reactions: #BitterPill.” The first isn’t much more than a glorified comment section, and the second is a scattered collection of social media postings related to the article.

Surely, of all of the topics of national interest, citizens have the motivation, passion, and personalized context necessary to provide compelling additional coverage for a health care system that nearly everyone agrees is broken. It’s great that Time has a place to collect these stories, but as near as I can tell, there was no reporter working to aggregate and share the follow-up information in a meaningful way, perhaps by using Storify to curate the most compelling stories. Nor was there a reporter trying to make sense of reader input or reactions, the way Andy Carvin approaches Twitter during breaking news events. Why is “regular” news different from an emergency event, when Time and others are clearly willing to invest in curating citizen contributions?

If news outlets are willing to bend the rules, so to speak, during times of rapid-onset crises, they should be able to develop engaging strategies to inspire citizen reporting for other events of local or national importance. This approach would complement the work already done during emergencies by providing nuance, context, and perhaps even overlooked voices in our professional news coverage.

Trevor Knoblich works as Project Manager for FrontlineSMS, a 2011 Knight News Challenge winner. He began his career as a federal policy reporter in Washington, DC, then spent 5 years working as a humanitarian specialist. He currently works on issues at the intersection of journalism, technology and developing countries. At FrontlineSMS, he is building tools to help journalists and media outlets around the world improve their ability to gather, track and share news.