Citizen Journalism's Positive Points

Martin Stabe

Since launching the Citizen Journalism Awards to highlight the growing importance of contributions from non-professional journalists to the newsgathering process, Press Gazette has drawn a bit of criticism. The problem was not so much the concept, which no less than participatory media guru Dan Gillmor deemed a “cool” idea, but the label we gave it. Many people objected to either the term “citizen journalism” or the way we used it.

It’s no surprise, since just about everyone who has given participatory media any thought has concluded that the term is flawed.

After long debate, we limited entries to pictures or videos that non-professionals had submitted to established news media. A limited definition, indeed, but more practicable than all the alternatives we batted around.The range of objections is instructive about the debates that have long raged in this area.

Broadly, there are four objections to the term “citizen journalism”. One objects to the word “journalism”; another objects to the word “citizen”. In between are two objections that the common usage of the term does not overlap with its empirical reality. One says the use of the phrase is overbroad; the other says that it is too narrow.

The ‘protectionist’ objection

First, there are the J-word protectionists.The protectionists tend to be established journalists who take exception to the notion that a mere amateur could be referred to as a journalist by virtue of happenstance.

Take the letter to Press Gazette by photojournalist Pete Jenkins:

“[T]his is presumably to reward people who were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have been caught up in one disaster or another, and happen to own a mobile cameraphone.

“Or am I missing something here?

Could someone please point out where the journalism comes into all of this?

“So perhaps this would be better titled: Nokia Amateur Photographer (mobile phone section) and Blogging Awards 2006.

“Can we please put this ‘citizen journalism’ nonsense to death, once and for all?”

The NUJ seems to sympathise with this view. In its efforts to avoid the sacrosanct J-word, the journalists’ union prefers to use the phrase “witness contributors”.

This objection highlights the difficulty of defining “citizen journalism”.

Had we adopted Jenkins’s “amateur photography” entry criteria, thousands — if not millions — of mobile phone snapshots of frolicking pet cats would be eligible.

The ‘overbroad’ objection

The second objection takes this problem into account. It objects to the word “journalism”, because the vast bulk of the material being created by bloggers and users of photosharing sites such as Flickr never intended to commit acts of journalism.

In fact, most so-called “citizen journalists” are simply using these new tools in a semi-public way that established media thinking cannot comprehend.

Writing on his blog last year, Guardian Unlimited assistant editor Neil Macintosh argued that the “journalism” half of the phrase is a “a product of old-fashioned, centralised, old media thinking, and needs to be thrown out”.

What’s actually happening, according to Macintosh, is that new technology is facilitating “citizen storytelling” through the public use of personal media. Only occasionally does all this “me media” become “we media”, when aggregators spot items that are of wider public interest. In an effort to fit the citizen media peg into the mass media hole, big-media journalists are misusing the term.

This view was also expressed at last month’s We Media conference by the BBC’s Richard Sambrook. “I personally don’t like the term ‘citizen journalism’ because I don’t think most people who are either providing material to big media or writing blogs think of themselves only as journalists,” he said.

The ‘narrow’ objection

The third objection takes the opposite view. This group says big media journalists define citizen journalism too narrowly by including only those parts of the phenomenon that they can exploit, such as photographs sent in to them or comments left on their blogs.

We talk about cameraphone shots of disasters, but not the original reporting being done on some blogs and community websites, independently of, and sometimes in opposition to, the output of established media organisations.

This has been the most common criticism of Press Gazette’s use of the term.

Deborah Hobson of raised this issue on our letters pages and several excellent observers of online journalism — Paul Bradshaw, Amy Gahran, Jeff Jarvis, Jemima Kiss and Craig McGinty — made similar criticisms on their blogs.

It’s a fair cop.

The ‘redundancy’ objection

The final critique of the term “citizen journalism” is that it is a redundancy. Journalists are citizens — indeed modern journalism is the professional exercise of a right of citizenship. The fact that only a small number of people have been able to publish their journalism to a large audience has not been in keeping with democratic ideals.

When AJ Leibling famously argued that liberal democracies’ freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one, he was suggesting that the economic barriers to mass exercise of press freedom were an unfortunate defect of modern industrial mass democracy. Perhaps we are seeing that beginning to change.

The law takes a similar view: witness the recent case in California in which an appeals court judge stressed that press freedom guarantees of the US Constitution and the California reporters’ shield law are rights of citizens, not of a particular class of accredited “legitimate journalists”. The decision meant that journalists’ right to protect sources from being revealed in court was extended to a number of blogs covering Apple Computer. The precedent is being hailed in the US as a major victory for online journalism and self-published blogs in particular.

If mass participation in journalism very gradually becomes the norm, it is the small class of people working as journalists full-time for money who will increasingly be the ones who need a modifier before the J-word.