Citizen Journalism – A Primer

Citizen Journalism is the modern manifestation of an ancient truth – no matter how (or what) you tell people to think, they’ll always:

  • have their own opinions and
  • find the truth if you’re lying to them

The Information Age has made gaps in our knowledge and gaps in the knowledge pushed to us by traditional information channels glaringly obvious. Citizen journalism is an evolving and effective mechanism for both finding those gaps and filling them where possible.

What is Citizen Journalism?

Modern technology and to a large extent the global reach of the Internet has enabled people to publish and distribute opinions, analysis, fact-checking and general feedback on local and global events relevant to them on a day-to-day basis.

Mark Glasser, a longtime freelance journalist who frequently writes on new media issues, explains it in a nutshell:

The idea behind citizen journalism is that people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others. For example, you might write about a city council meeting on your blog or in an online forum. Or you could fact-check a newspaper article from the mainstream media and point out factual errors or bias on your blog. Or you might snap a digital photo of a newsworthy event happening in your town and post it online. Or you might videotape a similar event and post it on a site such as YouTube.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Citizen Journalism and Traditional Media

In some cases citizen journalism is a formal label for the push-back of opinion and analysis from the ‘audience’ of a traditional broadcast media.

However citizen journalism doesn’t stop at feedback or personal blogging or fact-checking. It’s all that and much more. At it’s finest, citizen journalism fills in the gaps that traditional media cannot, or will not, fill. News that mainstream media won’t cover because it doesn’t “sell” – citizen journalism has got it covered. Perspective that mainstream media won’t give you because of various reasons (won’t sell, don’t have smart enough analysts, take your pick) – citizen journalism has it.

We take democracy for granted today, but the foundations of democracy were painfully eked out over centuries of social struggle and the wresting away of control from the few to a more equitable, balanced and transparent system of governance.

The struggle between traditional media and mainstream journalism is quite similar in shape and eventual destination if not in scale – traditional media will struggle to hold back citizen journalism until it learns and accepts that both have strengths that complement each other and weaknesses that can only be addressed through collaboration.

You can’t control how people think. You can’t control what people talk about, or read, or write. What you CAN do is create an environment where truth, transparency and objectivity are given the highest priority over personal biases and financial stakes. The principles of responsible democracy work just as well for responsible citizen journalism.

Traditional Media use the ‘lack of objectivity’ excuse as a convenient way to put down citizen journalism. That’s a fair critique, as most people styling themselves as citizen journalists are biased to the hilt.

Having said that, holding up the average blogger cum citizen journalist as the highest ideal for citizen journalism is akin to holding up News Of The World (a UK tabloid) as the hallmark of serious journalism.

Fact is (I’m surprised how often this fact is lost on people),everything you see on TV, hear on the radio or read in the paper is a product of someone’s limited knowledge, opinions based on that knowledge and coloured by their biases (and liberally manipulated to suit the publisher’s agenda, if any). The amount of filtering and editing that happens from an event occuring to you learning the details about it makes it impossible for anyone, anywhere, to deliver information objectively.

Publishers have agendas. Media houses, TV channels, newspapers, radio stations, your local daily, the blogger you follow on football – everyone has their biases and agendas.

Citizen Journalism – the Good and the Bad

Having said that, citizen journalism (public expression in the domain of news reporting and analysis) has advantages and disadvantages and in many cases the criticism leveled at it is justified.

Good:

  1. Speed:

    We’ve already seen the Internet erode traditional print media boundaries by offering instant news publishing and near-real time access via news aggregators and search engines.

    A combination of mobile technology and innovation has meant that quite often it is the average citizen at the scene of an event who provides news coverage before TV channels can get their crews on the spot.

  2. Simplicity:

    Have a mobile phone with a decent camera (who doesn’t?) Have Internet access at home? Can you access a webcam or a microphone at home or work? You don’t need a TV crew and an editing staff to be a citizen journalist – technology, innovation and a little perseverance goes a long way.

  3. Low-Cost:

    Chances are you already have the equipment you need (or that it will cost you a tiny fraction of what it would cost to setup your own newspaper or TV channel). Promotion on the Internet is a factor of time and experience – by and large if you write about what people are interested in, have a unique angle and know online marketing basics, you’re off to a flying start. Costs? Minimal.

  4. Gaps:

    There are gaps (in breadth and depth) in traditional media’s news coverage. There’s market demand for citizen journalism, there are gaps to fill, and more and more you will see citizen journalism filling these gaps.

  5. Bad:

    1. No moderation or clear standards:

      Speed and low-cost has its disadvantages – the onus of editing (and responsible editing) falls squarely on the writer. If their writing skills are subpar, their message, and therefore their platform for expressing themselves, will look unprofessional. If their writing is deliberately offensive, there’s no system of checks to prevent such messages from being distributed.

      With traditional media, their agenda may be defined by their bottom line but they are still subject to rules and regulations of their local journalistic authority. Citizen journalists? No such thing.

      This leads to a host of other problems – copyright theft, irresponsible journalism (we’re not journalists, the rules don’t apply to us, so we can say whatever we want to whomever we want) and a personalisation of news reporting – not in terms of how you say it but literally in terms of what you are saying, and as a result there’s a lack of perspective that seriously hurts the credibility of that writer.

    2. Lack of mass proliferation:

      It’s easy to get started as a citizen journalist and it’s ridiculously easy to promote your work online, but you can’t match the widespread audience of a TV channel or a newspaper, it’s not possible on a stringshoe budget.

      Serious journalists often turn to traditional media as a career choice instead of striking out a path on their own because of this very reason – they don’t have the audience necessary to make a difference in public opinion.

    Citizen Journalism, the World and Pakistan

    Citizen journalism has strong roots in political discourse and sometimes is mistaken for public debate on politics and current affairs. However, if you go back to what I said at the start about citizen journalism:

    The Information Age has made gaps in our knowledge and gaps in the knowledge pushed to us by traditional information channels glaringly obvious. Citizen journalism is an evolving and effective mechanism for both finding those gaps and filling them where possible.

    These gaps can occur in any sphere of knowledge, from popular culture to sports to technology to child health to military affairs to local events. We’ve seen the rise of non-political citizen journalism in the world and while citizen journalism is still in it’s early stages in Pakistan, we’re seeing a trend in non-politicising citizen journalism here as well.

    There’s news that we’re told happened. Then there’s news that actually happens. Some of us lucky enough to be in the proximity when it does (or have quick access to the details). Citizen journalism is about bridging the gap between what we’re told, and what happens. Sometimes we don’t get the full picture. Sometimes the news slips under our radar. Citizen journalism is about keeping track and making sure we know everything there is to know about everything that’s happening around us.

    Is that a goal worthy of your support?

    Further reading: Beginner’s Guide To Citizen Journalism.

One Response

  1. edwina pereira28 July 2009

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