Inconvenient truths about citizen journalism

This article was published by LMD magazine this month.

“This is not good anymore… Once the battery charges, I’m going to download it from the camera and stream it to you live. I mean, I don’t believe this is happening. Seriously, I don’t believe this is happening…”

They were the last words of one of the bravest citizen journalists of our time – Libyan Mohammed Nabbous, killed in Benghazi in March (find the story at

When we talk about citizen journalism, we think of accidental reporters who, in the face of a catastrophic event, grab a cellphone and capture a story that would otherwise never have been recorded.

Many in the West recall the first heartbreaking reports of the 2004 Asian tsunami, captured by citizens in Sri Lanka. Commuters, not trained reporters, provided the first grainy videos when terrorists bombed subways and buses in London in 2005. Likewise, the first images of the dramatic ‘splash landing’ of an US Air­ways flight into the Hudson River in Manhattan were captured by a citizen journalist. But like those in mainstream media who have put themselves in harm’s way (those like Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, who was killed in 2002; and Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misrata, in Libya recently), citizen journalists are following in their footsteps.

Now that large media organi­sations have downsized, citizen journalists are often filling the gaps.

Whether we approve of them or not, they are often the first responders, covering a broad range of events – wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, elections, civil un­rest, famines and terrorism – that seem to be taking place with greater frequency these days.

Media Test Kitchen. There are many questions of course, as this ‘accidental profession’ shows signs of turning more professional (‘Pro’) than amateur (‘Am’). How will established news-media organisations deal with this new phenomenon? Or the more pertinent question is, how will governments adapt to this reality?

First to the Pro-Am relationship. In the early years, the Pros were sceptical. Yet, more recently across the world, as mainstream media organisations began cutting back on staff, this gave rise to newsrooms where Pros could be sought after (or outsourced) like Ams. Steve Outing, Direc­tor of the Digital Media Test Kitchen, once observed that “few news organisations have the manpower to cover everything that their readers are interested in, but by tapping the volunteer (or cheap) resour­ces of the citizenry, a news organisation can potentially provide coverage down to the little league team and church-group level, as well as offer better and more diverse coverage of broader issues by bringing in more voices and perspectives”.

In 2006, probably the turning point of citizen journalism, the BBC announced that it would in fact pay Ams for their contributions that could include video footage taken and saved on cellphones. The BBC’s Direc­tor of Global News Richard Sambrook observ­ed how invaluable citizens’ input had been in reporting the London bombings the previous year: “Within six hours, we received more than 1,000 photographs, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages and 20,000 emails. People were participating in our coverage in a way we had never seen before.” (For a discussion of the struggle between Pros and Ams, listen to the BBC report at 0711)

Sambrook called this new phenomenon ‘open-source journalism’, where there was collaboration between a Pro and his or her readers on a story. In other words, the Pros were working alongside the Ams!

Indeed, citizen journalism has pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism. Just like the BBC, many major news organisations have begun tacking on a citizen-powered news stream, and it is becoming more of a hybrid. And the vast number of events taking place in parts of the world that are hard to access has created the perfect conditions for niche-media outlets.

In Libya, a citizen journalist noted the following: ‘Before the revolution, there was only one newspaper that belonged to the Government. But after the revolution, now there are almost five…” He appeared jubilant that even he could play a small part in making that happen.

His profession – when he isn’t a citizen reporter – is…? A dentist!

Just this June, The New York Times opened up a story for citizen participation in making sense of a trove of email records (24,199 in all) from Sarah Palin, released by the Governor’s Office in Juneau, in Alaska: “We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy emails, people and events that we may want to highlight. Interested users can fill out a simple form to describe the nature of the email, and provide a name and email address so we’ll know who should get the credit.”

Likewise, The Washington Post invited readers, saying: “That’s a lot of email for us to review, so we’re looking for some help from Fix readers to analyse, contextualise and research those emails right alongside Post reporters over the days following the release.”

Note the words ‘alongside Post report­ers’. To qualify, people didn’t need to have a degree in journalism… just a computer and an internet connection!

Others have been cooking up different recipes in the test kitchen of citizen participation. Media observers have been calling it ‘non-profit journalism’ and ‘grassroots journalism’.

“Non-profit journalism organisations as well as citizen journalists are producing news that too often is overlooked by traditional media,” observes Jason Stverak, President of the Franklin Center for Govern­ment and Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism organisation.

The distinction between online journalists and those who write in to newspapers and magazines or work in radio or TV are disappearing, and their skill sets are being cross-pollinated. Stverak rightly says that “not all those who write online stories are journalists yet, but the ones who are should get the same access and treatment as those few still employed by newspapers, television and radio”.

For the Ams (who are often videographers, bloggers and podcasters), access and ‘treatment’ are sticky issues. Consider the following. Even when it comes to major events such as the World Economic Forum (where bloggers and YouTubers provide up-to-the-minute and live coverage), press accreditation is reserved for ‘all accredited media’. Three bloggers who called themselves ‘alternative journalists’ sued the New York Police Depart­ment for giving them the cold-shoulder treatment – by denying them press credentials.

In the UK, the Tameside Council (a borough of Manchester) ruled that bloggers could not be permitted to tweet, since they were technically not members of the press corps. The council however permitted the Manchester Evening News and the Tameside Reporter to use Twitter during its meetings. In many instances like this, a person needs to prove that he or she is an ‘accredited representative’ of the press.

Which begs the question: would someone like Nabbous have been considered an accredited member? Probably not!

Jay Rosen, a promoter of the Pro-Am model for many years and a journalism professor at New York University, thinks that the profession has not been making much progress in this area – for the simple reason that the Pros have not been making it easy for citizens.

“The ergonomics of participation in Pro-Am journalism are poorly understood. We don’t have enough experts in it,” he says. In order to engage people in this model of reporting, “they need to see and feel the connection between the small part they are asked to contribute and the big story that will result”.

Then there is the credibility factor. Citizen journalists do not have the built-in reputation of a news organisation, especially if they are working solo. But this has been changing. As the BBC’s Michael Buerk noted while talking to an Egyptian citizen journalist, “it’s not important because of what old-style journalism can’t do, but for what they won’t do”.

There is an upside to all of this, not just for the media but for communities and for democracy. The ‘inconvenient truths’ in a functioning democracy, says Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor of citizen-journalism outfit Ground Views, is that with citizen participation “you risk the multiplicity of voices and strengthen media literacy”.

And yes, it is messy… but you end up with an informed citizenry, which isn’t a bad payoff. They, the hoi polloi, decide on which media they will believe – and as has been the case in Iran and Egypt until recently, they often do not believe the official narrative coming from the mainstream media.

Professional Amateurs. Some ex-journalists and entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in this space and begun to create business models, albeit non-profit businesses. One of them, The Uptake (, is a ‘citizen-fuelled news organisation’.

“Online tools will not solve community development,” says The UpTake. It stresses the need for a different type of citizen journalist – the Professional Amateur.

It also explains how one person wearing many hats is not the norm in citizen-fuelled news. Shooting the video, editing the story and publishing it online is more than what a Pro-Am ought to be asked to do.

Uptake recommends three core areas a citizen-fuelled organisation needs to focus on: train, organise and crowd-source. More importantly, it looks at citizen journalism not as a reactive means to cover a story as it breaks.

The co-founder of The UpTake Chuck Olsen calls it “committing an act of journalism” – meaning, going out there and finding the story, not reacting to it. “Most acts of citizen journalism are simply documenting something – a London subway cellphone photo, for example. And that’s very important,” he notes.

But as the model matures and takes on a Pro-Am status, Olsen calls for more: “We want to elevate citizen journalism from being reactive to being proactive. Go out and find stories that interest you, and provide some training on how to capture and tell that story.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.