Citizen journalism refers to journalism produced not by professionals but by those outside mainstream media organizations. Citizen journalists typically have little or no training or professional qualifications, but write and report as citizens, members of communities, activists, and fans. They are amateur media producers. The two broad types of citizen journalism are political and cultural.
The term citizen journalism dates from the 2000s, but its practice is not new. The radical reformist newspapers that flourished in England from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries had characteristics similar to recent citizen journalism: the socalled pauper management; the stance as activists; and a close relationship with the audience, who themselves wrote reports (Curran & Seaton 2003). Similarities also appear in the anarchist presses at the turn of the twentieth century. Socialist organizations and political parties encouraged worker correspondents in English newspapers. Workers’ contributions arguably made the papers’ political philosophies relevant to readers’ experiences.
The space available distinguishes current citizen journalists. The Internet enables publication of reports outside of the industrial arrangements typical of media corporations. The Internet may also offer social movements a global reach.
Citizen journalists practice across a range of media, from homeless-produced newspapers to community-based local radio and television stations (Howley 2005). Print media offer scope for full participation. Broadcast media require technical competence and training. Dependence on experts leaves fewer opportunities for citizens to participate in production, reducing them to advisors. Home camcorders and computer video-editing packages, used not for conventional broadcasting but for producing videos, DVDs and web streaming, minimize the reliance on experts. The Internet has permitted citizen journalism to expand. Despite barriers to access in many places, software allows users to set up websites and discussion groups with minimal expertise.
Participatory media production contests media power and challenges the monopoly on producing symbolic forms. Pierre Bourdieu (1991) argues that symbolic power is the power to construct reality. Citizen journalism constructs a reality that opposes the conventions and representations of mainstream media. Citizen journalists engage in self-representation, community empowerment, and self-education through dialogue (Rodriguez 2000). Citizen media production aims not at state-promoted citizenship but at media practice to construct political identity along with everyday life. The media help define the boundaries of political life and alternative media spaces become important to the development of critical citizens.
In political practice, citizen journalism adopts social responsibility but replaces an ideology of objectivity with oppositional practices. The practices emphasize first-person, eyewitness accounts by participants. They rework the populism of tabloid newspapers to recover a radical popular style of reporting. Their collective and anti-hierarchical forms of organization eschew demarcation and specialization.
Academic studies of citizen journalism focus on political projects in the United States and western Europe. The radical community press that flourished there in the 1970s and 1980s sought to be free from commercial considerations and to provide information that was directly useful in daily life. Instead of the perspective of authority, the radical local press adopted the perspective of those low in status, who became not only sources in stories but also news gatherers. Reporters built up networks of local activists, residents’ groups, parents, workers, unemployed, and homeless who could supply leads for stories (Dickinson 1997; Whitaker 1981).
The network of independent media called Indymedia is an Internet-based, globalized form of citizen journalism (Downing 2002; Platon & Deuze 2003). Indymedia came to prominence during the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, in November 1999. Since then an independent media centers network has reported and commented on issues such as third-world debt, human rights, internationalization of capital, and the political and economic power of transnational corporations. The reports counter the enduring frames of mainstream media coverage, which demonize and marginalize protesters. Indymedia reporters present the perspective of activists and emphasize the personal. The network is global, and studies need to examine specific regional and national practices.
Studies have explored other citizen journalism projects in Latin America and Asia. Bolivian miners’ radio stations, for example, flourished from 1963 to 1983, but first appeared in 1952, the year of national revolution. Their participatory media production highlighted the rights of workers in a politically marginalized region (O’Connor 2004). In revolutionary Nicaragua of the 1980s and 1990s, the Movement of Popular Correspondents allowed nonprofessional, voluntary reporters from poor rural areas to produce and publish reports in regional and national newspapers alongside the work of professional journalists (Rodriguez 2000).
Men appear to dominate the history of citizen journalism in Latin America, but not necessarily elsewhere. For instance, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan reported on the abuse and execution of women under Taliban rule, producing audio cassettes, videos, a website, and a magazine (Waltz 2005). Afghan women distributed these clandestinely, using secretly filmed camcorder footage of abuse, for example. The South Korean OhmyNEWS has adopted a hybrid approach to its website (Kim & Hamilton 2006). Founded in 2000, the site relies on hundreds of citizen reporters, although a small professional staff runs its editorial office.
Researchers have not covered other regions as well. One study documents the diversity of citizen journalism projects in Africa and the Indian subcontinent (Gumucio Dagron 2001), presenting 50 brief examples of participatory communication used for social change. The cases represent all types of alternative media institutions that somewhat reproduce existing forms: newspapers, radio stations, and websites.
By contrast, bloggers present their narratives, news, and commentary from the perspective of the individual. Citizen journalism is also a form of popular cultural commentary (Rau 1994). The world of fanzines, or ezines online, allows fans to create, maintain, and develop taste communities across geographic boundaries. Considered an expert by readers, the fanzine writer accrues cultural capital, typically displayed directly, not through the mediation of other sources or primary definers.
Challenges And Limits
Citizen journalism is a radical challenge to the professional and institutional practices of the mainstream media. The citizen journalist engages in native reporting, which in a postcolonial sense is a subaltern media practice that contests the power of professional journalists, resists their othering and struggles within the politics of representation. Native reporting occurs within communities to present news relevant to their own interests, gathered with their collaboration and support and presented in a manner meaningful to them. Citizen journalism focuses less on the report as a commodity or on journalists as experts, not because of the novelty of knowledge they produce (a focus on uncovering hidden stories) but because of their new ways of thinking about and producing journalism (a focus on what kinds of knowledge they produce and how readers and writers may come together to make sense of the result).
The relationship between the citizen journalist’s roles as writer and as activist (or enthusiast or fan) matters. For them, journalism is a secondary activity in the service of a greater goal. In the case of social movement journalism, for instance, the goal might be political reform or revolution. Such journalists are autodidacts, who practice not only different ways of writing but different approaches to sourcing and ethics.
Citizen journalism practices are not entirely separate from the mainstream. Commercial media organizations make use of amateur reporters; breaking television news increasingly relies on camcorder footage. Numerous examples appeared in 2005, for instance, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the fire at the Buncefield Fuel Depot in England and the terrorist bombings in Madrid (Sampedro 2005). Newspapers and broadcasters routinely incorporate blogs into their websites; some solicit advice and recommendations for stories and programs from audiences.
The nonprofessional status of citizen journalists tends to restrict the range of their reporting. The form appears most appropriate when used to report on local community issues or to present personal narratives from within a major event (such as a conflict). In reporting hard news, citizen journalists have less access to elite sources and institutions. The reliance on comment and opinion has left citizen journalists open to charges of bias and subjectivity, but subjectivity can inspire trust. A survey found that blog readers placed great store by the honesty and authenticity of subjective accounts (Matheson & Allan 2003).
Problems also arise from organizational methods. Some citizen journalism projects fail for want of long-term commitment or for lack of capital. Some projects have developed hybrid models of organizing their reporting. OhmyNews from South Korea sustains itself through commercial advertising, and established a hierarchy so that professional journalists report hard news and citizen journalists report on their immediate communities, with the professional staff retaining overall control. In this case, limiting citizen journalists to what they do best addresses the doubts about their subjectivity, bias, and expertise.
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