What is citizen journalism and why should we care about it?
‘Citizen Media Rendez-vous’, a conference on the potential and impact of New Media, that presented some examples of this emerging trend, provided some answers. The event was held in Montréal, Canada, on August 23, 2010.
Let’s step back a minute and consider this definition by Mark Glaser, an on-line media expert: “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.”
There are many examples of people spontaneously ‘reporting’ during emergencies, for example, citizens blogging, tweeting and texting during the Mumbai bombings in December 2008.
The conference however featured fledging, yet more organised initiatives. Panelists Tim McSorely, Craig Silverman and Georgia Popplewell spoke respectively about The Media Co-operative, OpenFile and Global Voices, three different citizen journalism initiatives.
For Tim McSorley, an editor at Media Co-Operative, a Canadian coast-to-coast network of local, media co-operatives, citizen journalism is about greater access, accountability and democracy.
This open publishing site allows citizens to upload text, audio and video reports, and hopes to fund professional reporting alongside free citizen reporting, in the future. The editors also seek input from their online community about what should be covered and how. Media Co-op gets most of its funding through memberships and donations. Operational since 2008, it has 200 members. A core, skeletal staff gets paid; everyone else volunteers.
The Co-op reporting policy is to talk to people directly affected first, then, time and resources permitting, the journalists bring their questions to those making the decisions: politicians, corporate executives. Typically this is the opposite of how mainstream media operate.
“We do media literacy workshops and provide training to encourage people to use the site. We also encourage real-time, on-ground reporting during big, local events. The G20 meeting in Toronto and the Olympic Games in Vancouver were well covered by citizen journalists this year,” says McSorely.
OpenFile, a new initiative based in Toronto, is a collaborative, local news site where stories are suggested by readers, then selected and investigated by OpenFile journalists. “Citizens may want to know, for example, why a tax bill has gone up for no apparent reason or why are they cutting down trees on their street,” says Silverman.
As the professional journalist goes about investigating the idea suggested by a citizen, s/he keeps the person informed about how the story is evolving. Apart from producing journalism that is more locally responsive, OpenFile can get actual intervention, for eg, a municipal staff person may be called upon to answer a question. “The end of a story could become the beginning of a discussion,” says Silverman.
He admits that getting citizens involved can be challenging. Like Media Co-op, OpenFile actively reaches out to citizens and communities. The initiative is variously funded, including citizen contributions.
Global Voices is a larger scale initiative that operates like a non-profit and is funded through grants. It is “an international, volunteer-led project that collects, summarises, and gives context to some of the best self-published content found on blogs, podcasts, photo sharing sites, and videoblogs from around the world, with an emphasis on countries outside of Europe and North America… and on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international, mainstream media.” It claims a community of 300 bloggers and translators, with content translated into 18 languages.
Panellist Georgia Popplewell, who works for the organisation from Trinidad and Tobago says that the use and impact of citizen media differ from country to country. She cites the example of a group of casual bloggers in Madagascar who became the prime source of reliable news during an attempted coup there in 2009. Other media voices were censored at this time and international media picked up the story through the blogosphere.
“As a result the African Union stepped in and the country came under some scrutiny,” she says.
Should we care about this kind of journalism?
Mainstream media companies are large, powerful businesses that overwhelmingly reflect the interests of the rich and powerful. Media do expose government corruption and illegal corporate acts. Nevertheless, research consistently shows that mainstream media overwhelmingly portray elite viewpoints.
Citizen journalism turns this way of working on its head. Citizen journalists, armed with ICT tools, can potentially document what they want and distribute this information through the Internet.
While mainstream media in India are in good health right now, corporate media in North America are beginning to feel the heat of the ‘digital revolution’. Newspapers are shutting down and TV viewer ratings are adversely affected as millions of people turn away from these media “to do their own thing” on the Internet.
Citizen journalism’s future remains unclear. Many challenges surfaced at the conference – sustainable funding, ensuring data accuracy, maintaining independence and ethical standards, not getting co-opted by partisan interests, technical functionality and site usability, were some of them. According to Popplewell, citizen journalism manifests differently and has different impacts in each country that they cover. This is surely one of its strengths.
Other questions also arise: Will citizen journalism be able to excite and involve fickle and fragmented Internet audiences on a larger scale? Could some of these practices influence mainstream media?
The Media Co-operative: http://www.mediacoop.ca/
Infochange News & Features, October 2010