The Rise of Citizen Journalism

The Rise of Citizen Journalism

Citizen journalism—also called citizen media, participatory journalism, partisan media, or public journalism—is the act of regular citizens creating and disseminating news stories. This form of media, which includes blogging, micro-blogging, “tweeting”, photography, video blogging, and podcasting, has seen an increase in frequency since the 1990s. This era is marked by the invention and increased usage of the Internet, the dominant paradigm of neo-liberalism, and a move from mass society to networked society. Public commentary and involvement is regularly found as a result of dissatisfaction regarding the oligopoly of mass media and the increase in accessibility and use of the Internet. This paper will analyze and explore the particular factors that contributed to the rise of citizen media, including neo-liberalism, conglomeration of mass media, move to a networked society, and the increase in new media technologies.

The neo-liberalist view has risen to prominence in the last 30 years, and pushes the corporate desire for deregulation and free enterprise within mass media. “In the twentieth century, making the news was almost entirely the province of journalists, the people we covered (or newsmakers), and the legions of public relations and marketing people who manipulated everyone” (Gillmor, 60). Deregulation resulted in the government removing barriers and rules that were in place, creating a free, global market. This deregulation has actually created a vertical integration of the mass media, which created a media oligopoly as larger corporations buy out smaller companies within the media industry and related businesses.

With news journalism, this oligopoly often means that even if you were writing for a smaller paper or media outlet, your paycheck was coming from a large corporate company. This could cause stories to be ‘killed’, cut, or edited to bring them in line with the views of the media outlet’s owner (Shade and Lithgow, pg. 211. quoting Naomi Klein, 2000).  The owner chooses which news gets told and what angle (or ‘truth’) is shown. “Owners of the media influence the content and form of media content through their decisions to employ certain personnel, by funding special projects, and by providing a media platform for ideological interest groups” (Meier, 300). By dictating the focus of the news reported, media corporations are stifling freedom of the press and editorial independence.

One could argue that alternative media such as independent newspapers, co-op radio, student presses, and online sources are the response to such heavy-handed media control. The problem is that independent media is slowly disappearing, resulting in further unbalanced coverage. “Today all the news you get outside of the Internet is tightly controlled by a small handful of companies. For example, in 1990, 17.3% of daily newspapers were independently owned; whereas in 2005, 1% were. The same is true for television and radio news outlets” (McCurry). This hegemony in the media and loss of autonomy for journalists has contributed to the rise in citizen journalism (Russell).

The asymmetrical circulation of news stories has inspired the public to search out and generate what they deemed newsworthy. “‘The onus is increasingly on the news consumer to seek out what they should be interested in, rather than being passive,’ [Tom] Rosenstiel said” (CBC News), which often leads the consumer to independent and citizen content. A US study in 2006 found that of the 14,000 news hits in Google, they only covered 24 different subjects (CBC News). The dissatisfaction with conventional corporate news sources and the media industry’s practices is one of the primary triggers of activism such as partisan media.

The other large contributing factor in the rise of citizen journalism is the advancement of computer-mediated communications (abrev. CMC) and the transition to a networked society. The emergence of the networked society and the growth and popularity of CMC are interconnected. Global access to the Internet is more common than ever in industrialized nations, and some countries are even discussing access to the Internet as a human right. The ability to connect and communicate from the bottom-up is the key attribute of the Internet, and it works in favour of citizen journalism. The Internet is arranged as a many-to-many communication model, or what Mosco would describe as ‘popular communications’, which allows for grassroots, community-based connectivity. The many-to-many model is also indicative of a networked society as opposed to McQuail’s definition of a mass society.

People have become engaged in the new mediums of the 21st century, which is by no means a unique phenomenon; photography resulted in family photo albums, camcorders and VCRs helped create home movies (Castells, 366), and now computers and access to the internet are being used daily in innovative ways. “The combination of easy-to-use technologies and widespread internet access has unleashed an unprecedented array of new creativity,” (Geist, BBC News) including use of Creative Commons, Flickr, Technorati blog search engine, and Twitter. “The integration of various modes of communication into an interactive network” is similar to the transformation that took place with the introduction of the alphabet in 700 bc—some loved it, some hated it, but it completely altered human communications (Castells, 355-56).

The public, in a continuation of these trends, is now seeking out both traditional and new media sources for their local, national and global news (Pew Research Centre) through print, television, radio, and the Internet. In a networked society, the general public looks to opinion leaders or “trendsetters” for information and analysis. Consuming news from popular blog, Twitter feeds, podcasts, or YouTube channels is not much different (Godsall). “The web makes it possible for citizens to think in public together” (Gant, 13) thereby creating their own identity within a networked society (Barney). Mass media companies are seeing the value of online interaction with citizens. Not only can they provide eyewitness material, but you can also engage in discussions with them. Many social networks will also provide important demographics about the people interacting with your company’s online profile. These statistics can prove useful to pitching advertisers or focusing content toward their audience. The audience is no longer a passive consumer of media and the increased usage of social media networks and CMC demonstrates that.

This move from the consumer to the producer or creator is rapidly becoming routine. As Dan Gillmor writes about the transformation:

“Tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satellites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airwaves. This evolution—from journalism as lecture to journalism as a conversation or seminar—will force the various communities of interest to adapt.” (Gillmor, 60)

There are several different types of citizen journalists: from being in the right place at the right time, episodic activities, insider sources, investigative initiatives, and in-depth analysis (Gant). Journalism is “returning to its status as an activity rather than a profession” (Gant, 136) and is often referred to as “small ‘j’ journalism” when contributed to by nonprofessionals. Citizen journalism is constantly around us, and many Internet users probably don’t realize how much user-generated content they actually consume including YouTube content, podcasts, blogs, Twitter, photos, and even fan fiction.

The public as ‘eyewitness’ is not a new feature of society, but the increase in small recording devices, and the increased capabilities of mobile phones, has attributed to more “right place, right time” journalism. We have seen this particularly with several recent natural disasters and crises. In March 2011, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan created an abundance of first-hand reports from the regions affected; WikiNews reporting Hurricane Katrina in August 2005; and photos from the Californian wildfires in October 2007 (Allen and Thorsen) were geo-tagged on Flickr. In fact, photojournalism licensed through Creative Commons immediately rose in prominence with the launch of Flickr in 2004. Many traditional media sources use citizen’s content such as first-hand video and photos to supplement news stories, or compile crowd-sourced articles of public opinions and responses.

Civic engagement, uprisings, and activism are also strongly supported through citizen journalism. For example, computer hackers in China are finding ways to get around local censorship laws; tweets and blogs are coming out of the Middle East; and even the Occupy movement is using social media. Regular Egyptian people are being trained by professional journalists in order to better report the people’s side of the story and events, not just what the government regimes want to broadcast to the world. The Occupy Wall Street movement set up a livestream camera so the world can watch without selective editing. OhMyNews in the city of Seoul, South Korea, has the motto of “every citizen is a reporter” and was one of the first globally recognized sites created with public content (Lee).

There is also activism on a less global, or violent scale; many bloggers offer an alternate viewpoint to the perspective provided by corporate media on everyday issues such as the economy, politics, and even global issues. According to a study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, in 2009, politics and government were discussed on 17% of blogs, 6% of Twitter stories, and 21% of YouTube videos, compared to 15% of traditional press stories. Social media platforms also outranked traditional sources in news topics regarding foreign (non-USA) events and technology. Traditional press still had a higher percentage of economic stories, health and medicine news.

In 2006, Time Magazine named the person of the year “you”, citing the rise of citizen journalism, blogging and user-generated content resulting in society’s populace acting simultaneously as the creator, collaborator, and community (Grossman). This illustrates and interesting shift in popular opinion from simply citizen engagement and the public sphere to shape opinion, towards a more participatory model of interaction. Wall Street Journal columnist of technology, Walter Mossberg believes that bloggers help bring attention to news stories that mainstream media may have missed. Mossberg also praises the introduction of new voices to the media discourse (Mossberg paraphrased by Bowman and Willis).

There are several arguments against citizen journalism, raising serious questions regarding accuracy, objectivity, quality, and ethics. One argument states “effective investigation, particularly on an international scale, requires resources and organizational and political clout that lay-people bloggers don’t enjoy. […] Only corporate media have the financial resources to stand up to governments and corporations to uphold the public interest” (Russell, 35. Attributed to Netanel, 2002). There have been frequent debates over the accuracy and quality of online Wikis compared to traditional encyclopedias (Good). Traditional journalists have to abide by a certain code of ethics and many scholars, news sources, and even bloggers have raised the question of what ‘ethical citizen journalism’ is. Most partisan media is biased, but it is often more transparent than corporate media structures. In the eyes of the citizens, journalistic objectivity is less important than spreading accurate, alternate perspectives based on solid research and fact.

The majority of the debates regarding the affects of citizen media took place in 2006 and 2007. Since then, it appears that the networked society has accepted citizen journalism as commonplace, as well as “publishers and editors began to act on the idea that audience participation can be a resource … collaboration is the resource to embrace now.” (Russell, 35). The journalism, broadcast, and publishing industries are still in flux with technology rapidly changing, but it looks like participatory journalism isn’t going away. If anything, it seems to have increased in popularity, while somehow decreasing in importance. Since 2007, there has been a decrease in news articles, blog posts, journalism essays, and books preoccupied with ‘the rise in citizen journalism’ as an emergent trend; Studies now tend to examine the global perspectives, cultural implications, copyright and privacy concerns. Michael Geist, a well-known Canadian professor and advocate of Internet democracy, believes that “the ability for anyone to use new electronic tools to engage in criticism, review, or news reporting … are pillars of a democracy and must surely enjoy full protection” (Geist, “30 Days of DRM”).

While citizen journalists are considered to be ‘nonprofessionals’ participating in journalistic activities within CMC, they play “an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information” (Bowman and Willis, 9). Due to the neoliberal media climate, conglomeration of corporate media, and the deregulation of ownership, citizens are taking on the role of journalist. We are experiencing citizens at the forefront of breaking news, firsthand narratives, and working without the expectation of compensation. These citizen journalists use the plethora of online tools and resources available at their fingertips. In the past decade there have been many technological developments and the rules and regulations regarding online media is constantly changing; this creates in a dynamic environment for citizen media, which fosters discussion, engagement, activism, and analysis from the general public.  “The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires” (Bowman and Willis, 9).  Such public participation is likely to continue for at least the next decade, but due to the rapidly changing technology, it is hard to conjecture many future possibilities.