Do-it-yourself journalism: Media in a digital age

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In this day and age, technology enables anyone to assume the identity of a citizen journalist.

When disaster strikes, citizens are the ones breaking the news from the frontlines, says Carolynne Burkholder in University of British Colombia journalism publication.

"When the London Underground was bombed on July 7, 2005, photos of the event were published on websites and blogs, and made their way to the mainstream media," she says.

"It was the people with camera cell phones that captured the images, not reporters."

Today's citizen journalists come from a multitude of backgrounds and are driven by different motives.

Citizen journalism sometimes appeals to groups that have been marginalized by the mainstream media, says Robert Huesca, an associate professor of communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

"Doing citizen journalism right means crafting a crew of correspondents who are typically excluded from or misrepresented by local television news," he says.

"Low-income women, minorities and youth, the very demographic and lifestyle groups who have little access to the media and that advertisers don't want."

But not all citizen journalists fit into this image.

Stephen Taylor is the co-founder of the website bloggingtories.ca, an online conglomeration of over 300 conservative bloggers from all over Canada.

He's white, university educated and male, but at the same time, a citizen journalist.

Judy Rebick founded rabble.ca in 2001 during the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Quebec. She believes the mainstream media only advances a "white, middle class" perspective on the news.

At the time, she didn't think the protests would be covered fairly, so she formed rabble.ca as an alternative news source, to be run by citizen journalists.

The site had to be interactive, she says, because young people now view news as a two-way conversation rather than a one-way lecture. She believes that citizen journalists are people who feel underrepresented by the media.

"Instead of demanding that the media better reflect them, they assume the media's not going to reflect them and they're going to reflect their own realities."

Most citizen journalists are regular people with no formal journalistic training. In general, citizen journalists are younger, motivated by social justice issues and feel ignored by mainstream media.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Many citizen journalists are people who are knowledgeable in a specific area and want to share this knowledge with others.

Stephen Kellat uses his podcast to disseminate information about the latest in library technology all over the world from his home in Henderson, Nevada.

Greg Fowler is a 58 year-old retiree from London, Ontario. He runs a citizen journalism website, frommybottomstep.com, to cover goings-on at London's City Hall.

Neither man has ever had any training in journalism.

Citizen journalists come in all shapes and sizes. Most have their own motives for doing it, but their one universal bond is that they all try to fill a niche that has not been satisfied in traditional media.

Citizen journalism fills news holes, holds governments accountable

There are many aspects of citizen journalism that some believe offer value to society.
One of these benefits is the inclusion of multiple perspectives from interested citizens that may not have otherwise been able to voice their opinion effectively.

"There are so many voices around the world; the mainstream media doesn't have a monopoly on that news," says Chris Hogg, an editor at Digital Journal, a citizen journalism website with contributors from around the world. Their content is made up of a variety of news topics from many various perspectives.

Hogg says he likes citizen journalism because stories are broken faster and it isn't often affected by the same restrictions as mainstream media.

"Citizen journalism ... is not limited to the minute-thirty sound bites that mainstream news might be, and it's a great compliment to mainstream coverage because you can learn a lot, you can share your views," he says. "It's collaborative between citizen journalists, and you find out about many things you wouldn't otherwise."

Cutbacks in the media industry have also created a niche for citizen journalists.

Barry Wells, who runs the alternative media website altlondon.org in London, Ontario, says that he places a lot of emphasis on "accountability and transparency in government."

Wells says he has noticed coverage in his local newspaper dwindling as their newsroom slowly shrinks. There are fewer city hall reporters than in the past, Wells says, but he prides himself on picking up the slack.

"Without a strong and aggressive media to hold their feet to the fire, government goes off the rails pretty fast," he says.

"Internet sites are filling a significant news hole," Wells says. "And there's some pretty credible sites."

Like Hogg, Wells says that citizen journalists have the ability to act faster than the mainstream news in some circumstances.

Stories from his site are often picked up by the local media, he says. He claims to have broken the controversy over a local baseball park's world record claim. More recently, he wrote about the demolition of a local bar many argued had important architectural heritage in the area.

According to Wells, citizen journalists have become an integral part of serving the public interest, particularly when it comes to reporting on government activity.

Community-based, collaborative news websites produce quality work

The mainstream media is catching on to the interactive trend in citizen journalism: collaborative storytelling.

Users of websites like rabble.ca, Digital Journal and Helium no longer want to be told the news -- they want to discuss it.

Judy Rebick created the babble forums to complement rabble.ca. She didn't understand the appeal, but remembers how it was explained to her by younger internet users.

They said: "It helps me to figure out what I think, knowing what other people think."

The media commonly portrays its perspective or slant on news events as concrete truth, says Rebick.

"But it's not the truth. If you want to find the truth, you have to look at multiple perspectives."

The collaborative phenomenon has spread all over the web, in mainstream and citizen media, arguably shaping the internet into the most powerful way to deliver news.

"(Mainstream media) doesn't provide an opportunity and a framework for people to collaborate, whereas a website I think gives you a lot more of that," says Ryan McGreal, editor of RaiseTheHammer.org, a Hamilton-based citizen journalism website.

Digital Journal, with "reporters" in 140 countries worldwide, is driven by the community's news judgment. Users and editors work together, figuring out ways to make articles better, teaching each other journalistic skills.

"It's a collaborative effort. We're here as on-site staff to help people learn," says Hogg. "We put just as much focus on the customer service aspect as the reporting aspect to make it feel like we're one big family where people are working for the same goals."

The main goal -- as is with many citizen journalism websites -- is to work together to create a credible news site.

After spending so much time interacting, some users feel that they've found a new identity and "home" online.

"I've built friendships," says Debra Myers, a citizen journalist on the site. "That's one thing I like about Digital Journal is that it is a community where we all respect each other, even though we come from so many varied lives and financial situations."

The power of the online community is that its users help each other to develop their skills, their knowledge, and to find their identities as citizen journalists.

Community or not, some citizen journalism sites have a long way to go to gain credibility.

Citizen journalists are 'illegitimate and unpredictable'

Citizen journalism is not accepted by everyone as legitimate and valuable.

Some feel that it's nothing more than random people writing random stories, and that applying the title of journalist to these individuals is not only misleading, but an insult to properly trained, professional journalists.

The British journalism trade magazine, Press Gazette, published an article on June 9, 2006 titled, "The four critiques of 'citizen journalism.'"

The piece focused on criticism of the Press Gazette's "Citizen Journalism Awards" and referenced a letter from photojournalist Pete Jenkins.

"This 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 camera phone," said Jenkins. "Could someone please point out where the journalism comes into all of this?"

In May 2003, Leander Kahney wrote an article for Wired magazine called "Citizen Reporters Make the News." It focused on OhmyNews, an online news site founded in South Korea. It operates under the concept that anyone can be a citizen journalist, and still runs today.

While Kahney points out some of the benefits of the concept and the site, he used the words "wild," "inconsistent" and "unpredictable" in his description of it.

David Beers, founding editor of The Tyee, wrote an article that appeared in the Canadian Journal of Education on Nov. 16, 2008.

In the piece, titled, "The Public Sphere and Online, Independent Journalism," he agreed with Kahney.

"As a journalist schooled in traditional approaches, I share these concerns about the insularity and unreliability of these new news media forms, even as I enjoy the populist spirit," he said.

"My view of journalism is that, at a minimum, it's a technical craft. There are some cultural norms in journalism, as to what is accurate and fair, balanced ... who's a credible source," he said in a phone interview. "Citizen journalism ... is amateurs posting whatever they want."

Sean Holman, the founding editor of Public Eye Online, based in Victoria, B.C., agreed with Beers in his assessment of the state of citizen journalism in Canada.

He said that while some of it is refreshing and encouraging, some can be conspiratorial.

"I don't find that there is actually a lot of worthy citizen journalism out there ... maybe Canadians just aren't that concerned about their public institutions," said Hollman. "It just strikes me that there isn't a lot of it going on in Canada right now."

With the right combination of professional journalism, citizen news can succeed

The future of citizen journalism is about as concrete as the future of professional journalism -- that is to say that no one really knows what will happen. Many variables can help explain why it has existed and may continue to do so.

Arguments for and against the future of citizen journalism have been debated almost since its conception.

One of the foremost proponents for the citizen journalism movement, Jay Rosen, is a journalism professor at New York University.

"It's unwise to say in advance that we know how it will work, or that it can't," says Rosen, who has overseen two pro-am open source reporting projects, where professionals and citizens work together to report the news.

"When the people, formerly known as the audience, employ the press tools in their possession to inform one-another, that's citizen journalism," says Rosen.

Another leading online media pioneer, Steve Outing, has launched numerous citizen journalism projects, but has mixed feelings towards it.

"I'm not totally comfortable with the term citizen journalism anymore," he says.

Outing started the Enthusiast Group project, which ran mostly user-generated content. Shortly after the project folded, he wrote a column about it in Editor & Publisher.

"Based in part on my experience with the Enthusiast Group project -- user content when it stands on its own is weak. But it's powerful when appropriately combined with professional content, and properly targeted."

Steve Boriss, a professor at Washington State University, wrote a blog entry proclaiming the death of citizen journalism.

"Expert Journalism is our future, not because it is good for journalists but because it is good for news consumers," he wrote in The Future of News blog.

As skeptical as he is, Boriss believes the right mixture with expert journalism may allow user-generated content to continue.

"The model that will work ... is one that combines the talents of topic experts throughout the web with those who have a knack for aggregating and editing their material to satisfy an audience," he wrote.

Boriss supports the notion that the audience and the journalists are a separate entity, but Rosen sees the audience's involvement in citizen journalism as a rejection of that idea, and provides Twitter as a case in point.

All three experts seem to agree that the right combination of professional journalism and user-generated content could succeed -- especially in an increasingly online world.

The future of citizen journalism may not be totally certain, but with emerging technology, experience, and most importantly citizen interest, it could be around for a while.

 

Jesse Reynolds, Ethan Rabidoux, Steve Bull, Rich Garton and Chris Montanini are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.

Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We'll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.

 

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