From citizen journalism myth to reality

Bertrand Pecquerie

Citizen journalism has been haunting newsrooms since Dan Gilmor wrote We the Media Grassroots Journalism for the People by the Poeple in 2004. Suddenly, for Gillmor epigone and imitators (not for Gillmor himself), there was a new hero, the citizen journalist, struggling against a bad guy called the traditional journalist.

In fact a very bad guy this old journo: outdated, working for a mainstream media  — disgusting, isn't it ? -, linked to corporate interests, limited by the newsroom horizon, not very well connected (nor well educated) and with no knowledge of what can interest average people! Moreover, truth and accuracy were no longer his cup of tea …

On the contrary, the citizen journalist had so many qualities: as a newcomer, he was young, fresh, innocent, independent, with a lot of new ideas on journalism and democracy and on top of that a real love of truth.

But the problem is that this ideal citizen journalist only exists in some bloggers' views.

The reality is different with the birth of four categories of citizen journalism, but with very few links between them:

  • the citizen journalist who owns a digital camera or a camera phone and sends shootings to a news organisation during a major event (tsunami, London bombing …) or a local car accident
  • the citizen journalist who wants to cover its local or virtual community and produce targeted content
  • the citizen jourrnalist who is a militant and campaigns for political reasons. How Eason Jordan was fired from CNN by infuriated bloggers in January 2005, was a good example of biased citizen journalism
  • the citizen journalist who is eager to participate to a  « conversation  » with professional journalists and bloggers.  « News is just the beginning  » says Jeff Jarvis and, in some cases, it is true.

No doubt something new has appeared in the last two years and that traditional newsrooms will have to deal with these new citizen journalists. But the idea that there is an essence of citizen journalism - as replacing the so-called traditional journalism - is dead.

Citizen journalists are part of the family, but different. And this difference depends on what journalists and bloggers call  « collective intelligence  ».

For a journalist, a newsroom is the expression of collective intelligence with horizontal links between colleagues and fact-checkers, but also with vertical relationships from the basic journalist to the editor-in-chief.

For a blogger (or a wikimedian) the network hates vertical acquaintances and will always give the priority to horizontal linking and fact-checking. As the Zagat cuisine guide, the real judge is the number of links to a site: popularity becomes synonymous of truth and quality. Not often relevant in the news process !

In conclusion, thank you the year 2006 for having clarified what is - and what is not - citizen journalism. And good luck to citizen journalists who are experiencing new ways of waging the truth and the reality.

To read almost the contrary, go to the Hypergene Mediablog and read the article written by Chris Willis and Shayne Browman for the Nieman Reports: a very good paper whose headline is "The Future Is Here, But Do News Media Companies See It?"