What Is Citizen Journalism?

Discover what is citizen journalism and read about some popular examples of the work of citizen journalists today.

Citizen journalism has been a hot topic over the past couple of years. Some have even suggested that it could signal the end of the mainstream media as we know it.

Of course, others have argued the above assertion is premature and there will always be a place for professional journalists, even if there is more of a focus on community-led media.

Understanding how citizen journalism will affect the future of news media requires us to take a wider view of the subject and examine just what this phenomenon is.

Definition of Citizen Journalism

Definition of citizen journalism
The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “journalism that is conducted by people who are not professional journalists but who disseminate information using Web sites, blogs, and social media”

Citizen journalism is a term describing the collection and distribution of information outside of traditional media structures by the public.

Britannica gives a good overview of citizen journalism with its definition: “Citizen journalism, journalism that is conducted by people who are not professional journalists but who disseminate information using Web sites, blogs, and social media.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “journalism that is conducted by people who are not professional journalists but who disseminate information using Web sites, blogs, and social media.”

Micha Barban Dangerfield wrote an excellent piece about participatory journalism, for The Tate Museum’s website. She cited new forms of communication as a key accelerator for citizen journalism. She wrote:

“The advent of the Internet, new technologies, social platforms and grass-roots media has heralded a significant shift in collecting, disseminating and sharing information.

“Citizen journalism can be considered as the offspring of this evolution – an alternative form of news gathering and reporting, taking place outside of the traditional media structures and which can involve anyone.”

Citizen media is often created and distributed by bystanders who witness an event or incident. The likes of Twitter, the best apps for journalists, and other social media platforms are now more than mere social communication tools; they also act as a place to find breaking and developing news.

The Origin of Citizen Journalism

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of citizen journalism, as the general public has been distributing information outside of traditional mass media for some time now.

However, South Korea’s OhMyNews often gets cited as the first major platform that encouraged non-professional journalists to contribute news.

It was created back in the year 2000 and became incredibly popular amongst the general public. Ordinary people saw it as a way to share information about subjects they felt weren’t getting enough attention from traditional journalism.

According to a report in The Guardian from 2011, around 70 percent of contributions on the site were getting published.

There are experts who argue that citizen reporting wasn’t born in the age of digital journalism. When Joh F. Kennedy was assassinated, Abraham Zapruder’s amateur footage became one of the most famous pieces of citizen journalism of all time.

After all, this was citizens participating in the creation and distribution of the news, outside of the norm of newsrooms.

Issues Around Participatory Journalism

Citizen journalism offers breaking news that may not otherwise reach the wider public.

However, critics would argue that the general public lacks the training and skills to verify the information that they gain. They also don’t have to answer to an editor and may be offering information that hasn’t gone through the necessary fact-checking procedures.

Of course, an answer to this can be to have professional journalists and editors do the necessary fact-checking and editing of the information.

The aforementioned OhMyNews has taken this approach, with the Guardian stating its “staff of 70 with 55 editorial positions… (do be) working on contributions that are all fact-checked and edited”.

This subject was also touched upon in a University of Kentucky academic paper, which also posed the question of whether news coverage can still be considered citizen journalism if it is collated by the public, but edited by professional journalists. It read:

“Citizen journalists reflect on their everyday lives and life experiences from the lifeworld, professional journalists embrace organizational values, norms, and ethics as they follow routines as a full-time vocation and write news stories on a regular basis.

“As a “quasi-professional journalism,” however, news stories from citizen journalists get published through professional journalistic values, norms, and skills. That is, professional journalists still function as gatekeepers—especially for hard news stories. This is still the case of OhMyNews.”

Citizen journalism isn’t a vocation without danger. A recent New York Times report revealed that a citizen journalist was sentenced to four years in prison for challenging the Chinese government’s narrative about the coronavirus pandemic.

Citizen Journalism During Conflicts

Rarely is citizen journalism more powerful than when bloggers and social media users on the ground in areas of conflict share information.

Examples of this include information published on Twitter following the Iranian presidential election in 2009. Here, citizen journalists bypassed the censorship that existed within news reports to reveal what was happening.

Another powerful example happened during the uprising in Egypt in 2011 when groups were organised via Facebook and information was shared there.

Referring to the above, Dr Sahar Khamis and Katherine Vaughn discussed the attraction of participatory media for those within areas of conflict. They wrote the following in Arab Media & Society:

“The significance of the introduction of the Internet stems from the fact that it defies boundaries, challenges governmental media censorship, and provides an alternative voice to traditional media outlets, which echo official, governmental policies and views.”

The ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia has shown the value of citizen journalism, with civilians directly showing conditions in the areas worst affected. Here, participatory journalism isn’t just being used as a way to distribute the news, but also as a way to show defiance.

How Has Mainstream Media Reacted?

Much of traditional news media has recognized the value of this type of journalism. In fact, many news organizations have embraced the idea of grassroots journalism and invited their audience to contribute.

Some of these news outlets have even started their own “hyperlocal” sites, which offer a more localized type of community content.

The birth of digital journalism and social media has caused citizen journalism to be a major factor in the media landscape.

Going forward, particularly in areas of severe censorship, the general public will always want to be able to tell their side of the story.

When it comes to citizen journalists and their professional counterparts, it doesn’t have to be a case of ‘either/or’. One is unlikely to replace the other, as often, they function for different reasons.

If you want to learn more about journalism, check out our guide to gonzo journalism.

FAQs

What are citizen journalism examples?

Examples of citizen journalism include the reporting on social media by members of the public of the protests following the Iranian presidential election in 2009.

Another example would be the collating of information by non-journalists on Facebook during the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

What is the role of a citizen journalist?

The role of the citizen journalist is to capture, report on and or disseminate information that’s in the public interest, with all the due diligence and care of a professional journalist. Often, these types of journalists capture or document raw footage of an event and share it on social media platforms like Twitter.

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