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The concept of citizen journalism (also known as "public", "participatory", "democratic", "guerrilla" or "street" journalism) is based upon public citizens "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information." Citizen journalism should not be confused with community journalism or civic journalism, both of which are practiced by professional journalists. Collaborative journalism is also a separate concept and is the practice of professional and non-professional journalists working together. Citizen journalism is a specific form of both citizen media and user generated content.
New media technology, such as social networking and media-sharing websites, in addition to the increasing prevalence of cellular phones, have made citizen journalism more accessible to people worldwide. Due to the availability of technology, citizens can often report breaking news more quickly than traditional media reporters. Notable examples of citizen journalism reporting from major world events are the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The idea behind citizen journalism is that people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others. For example, you might write about a city council meeting on your blog or in an online forum. Or you could fact-check a newspaper article from the mainstream media and point out factual errors or bias on your blog. Or you might snap a digital photo of a newsworthy event happening in your town and post it online. Or you might videotape a similar event and post it on a site such as YouTube.
In What is Participatory Journalism?, J. D. Lasica classifies media for citizen journalism into the following types:
The idea that average citizens can engage in the act of journalism has a long history in the United States. The modern citizen journalist movement emerged after journalists themselves began to question the predictability of their coverage of such events as the 1988 U.S. presidential election. Those journalists became part of the public, or civic, journalism movement, a countermeasure against the eroding trust in the news media and widespread public disillusionment with politics and civic affairs.
Initially, discussions of public journalism focused on promoting journalism that was "for the people" by changing the way professional reporters did their work. According to Leonard Witt, however, early public journalism efforts were, "often part of 'special projects' that were expensive, time-consuming and episodic. Too often these projects dealt with an issue and moved on. Professional journalists were driving the discussion. They would have the goal of doing a story on welfare-to-work (or the environment, or traffic problems, or the economy), and then they would recruit a cross-section of citizens and chronicle their points of view. Since not all reporters and editors bought into this form of public journalism, and some outright opposed it, reaching out to the people from the newsroom was never an easy task." By 2003, in fact, the movement seemed to be petering out, with the Pew Center for Civic Journalism closing its doors.
With today’s technology the citizen journalist movement has found new life as the average person can capture news and distribute it globally. As Yochai Benkler has noted, “the capacity to make meaning – to encode and decode humanly meaningful statements – and the capacity to communicate one’s meaning around the world, are held by, or readily available to, at least many hundreds of millions of users around the globe.” Professor Mary-Rose Papandrea, a constitutional law professor at Boston College, notes in her article, Citizen Journalism and the Reporter’s Privilege, that:
[i]n many ways, the definition of journalist has now come full circle. When the First Amendment was adopted, “freedom of the press” referred quite literally to the freedom to publish using a printing press, rather than the freedom of organized entities engaged in the publishing business. The printers of 1775 did not exclusively publish newspapers; instead, in order to survive financially they dedicated most of their efforts printing materials for paying clients. The newspapers and pamphlets of the American Revolutionary era were predominantly partisan and became even more so through the turn of the century. They engaged in little news gathering and instead were predominantly vehicles for opinion.
The passage of the term “journalism” into common usage in the 1830s occurred at roughly the same time that newspapers, using high speed rotary steam presses, began mass circulation throughout the eastern United States. Using the printing press, newspapers could distribute exact copies to large numbers of readers at a low incremental cost. In addition, the rapidly increasing demand for advertising for brand- name products fueled the creation of publications subsidized in large part by advertising revenue. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the concept of the “press” morphed into a description of individuals and companies engaged in an often competitive commercial media enterprise.
In 1999, activists in Seattle created a response to the WTO meeting being held there. These activists understood the only way they could get into the corporate media was by blocking the streets. And then, the scant 60 seconds of coverage would show them being carted off by the police, but without any context to explain why they were protesting. They knew they had to create an alternative media model. Since then, the Indymedia movement has experienced exponential growth, and IMCs have been created in over 200 cities all over the world.
Simultaneously, journalism that was "by the people" began to flourish, enabled by emerging internet and networking technologies, such as weblogs, chat rooms, message boards, wikis and mobile computing. A relatively new development is the use of convergent polls, allowing editorials and opinions to be submitted and voted on. Overtime, the poll converges on the most broadly accepted editorials and opinions. In South Korea, OhmyNews became popular and commercially successful with the motto, "Every Citizen is a Reporter." Founded by Oh Yeon-ho on February 22, 2000, it has a staff of some 40-plus traditional reporters and editors who write about 20% of its content, with the rest coming from other freelance contributors who are mostly ordinary citizens. OhmyNews now has an estimated 50,000 contributors, and has been credited with transforming South Korea's conservative political environment.
In 2000, The Raven launched a Web television station aimed at participatory journalism, reporting on events in the Daytona Beach area  . In 2001, ThemeParkInsider.com became the first online publication to win a major journalism award for a feature that was reported and written entirely by readers, earning an Online Journalism Award from the Online News Association and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism for its "Accident Watch" section, where readers tracked injury accidents at theme parks and shared accident prevention tips.
During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties issued press credentials to citizen bloggers covering the convention, marking a new level of influence and credibility for nontraditional journalists. Some bloggers[who?] also began watchdogging the work of conventional journalists, monitoring their work for biases and inaccuracy.
A recent trend in citizen journalism has been the emergence of what blogger Jeff Jarvis terms hyperlocal journalism, as online news sites invite contributions from local residents of their subscription areas, who often report on topics that conventional newspapers tend to ignore. "We are the traditional journalism model turned upside down," explains Mary Lou Fulton, the publisher of the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, California. "Instead of being the gatekeeper, telling people that what's important to them 'isn't news,' we're just opening up the gates and letting people come on in. We are a better community newspaper for having thousands of readers who serve as the eyes and ears for the Voice, rather than having everything filtered through the views of a small group of reporters and editors."
According to Jay Rosen, citizen journalists are "the people formerly known as the audience," who "were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all. ... The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable."
Public Journalism is now being explored via new media, such as the use of mobile phones. Mobile phones have the potential to transform reporting and places the power of reporting in the hands of the public. Mobile telephony provides low-cost options for people to set up news operations. One small organization providing mobile news and exploring public journalism is Jasmine News in Sri Lanka.
According to Mark Glaser, during 9/11 many eyewitness accounts of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center came from citizen journalists. Images and stories from citizen journalists close to the World Trade Center offered content that played a major role in the story.
The microblog Twitter played an important role during the 2009 Iranian election protests, after foreign journalists had effectively been "barred from reporting". Twitter delayed scheduled maintenance during the protests that would have shut down coverage in Iran due to the role it played in public communication.
Citizen journalists may also be activists within the communities they write about. This has drawn some criticism from traditional media institutions such as The New York Times, which have accused proponents of public journalism of abandoning the traditional goal of 'objectivity'. Many traditional journalists view citizen journalism with some skepticism, believing that only trained journalists can understand the exactitude and ethics involved in reporting news. See, e.g., Nicholas Lemann, Vincent Maher, and Tom Grubisich.
An academic paper by Vincent Maher, the head of the New Media Lab at Rhodes University, outlined several weaknesses in the claims made by citizen journalists, in terms of the "three deadly E's", referring to ethics, economics and epistemology. This paper has itself been criticized in the press and blogosphere.
An article in 2005 by Tom Grubisich reviewed ten new citizen journalism sites and found many of them lacking in quality and content. Grubisich followed up a year later with, "Potemkin Village Redux." He found that the best sites had improved editorially and were even nearing profitability, but only by not expensing editorial costs. Also according to the article, the sites with the weakest editorial content were able to aggressively expand because they had stronger financial resources.
Another article published on Pressthink examined Backfence, a citizen journalism site with initial three locations in the DC area, which reveals that the site has only attracted limited citizen contributions. The author concludes that, "in fact, clicking through Backfence's pages feels like frontier land -– remote, often lonely, zoned for people but not home to any. The site recently launched for Arlington, Virginia. However, without more settlers, Backfence may wind up creating more ghost towns."
David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and writer/producer of the popular TV series, "The Wire," criticized the concept of citizen journalism—claiming that unpaid bloggers who write as a hobby cannot replace trained, professional, seasoned journalists.
"I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying to."
An editorial published by The Digital Journalist web magazine expressed a similar position, advocating to abolish the term "citizen journalist", and replacing it with "citizen news gatherer".
"Professional journalists cover fires, floods, crime, the legislature and the White House every day. There is either a fire line or police line, or security, or the Secret Service who allow them to pass upon displaying credentials vetted by the departments or agencies concerned. A citizen journalist, an amateur, will always be on the outside of those lines. Imagine the White House throwing open its gates to admit everybody with a camera phone to a presidential event."
While the fact that citizen journalists can report in real time and are not subject to oversight opens them to criticism about the accuracy of their reporting, news stories presented by mainstream media also occasionally misreport facts that are correctly reported by citizen journalists.
Edward Greenberg, a New York City litigator, notes higher vulnerability of unprofessional journalists in court compared to the professional ones:
"So-called shield laws, which protect reporters from revealing sources, vary from state to state. On occasion, the protection is dependent on whether the person asserted the claim is in fact a journalist. There are many cases at both the state and federal levels where judges determine just who is/is not a journalist. Cases involving libel often hinge on whether the actor was or was not a member of the "press"."
The above does not mean that professional journalists are fully protected by shield laws. In the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes case the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated the use of the First Amendment as a defense for reporters summoned to testify before a grand jury. In 2005, the reporter's privilege of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper was rejected by the appellate court.
Others criticize the formulation of the term "citizen journalism" to describe the concept, as the word "citizen" has a conterminous relation to the nation-state. The fact that many millions of people are considered stateless and often without citizenship (such as refugees or immigrants without papers) limits the concept to those recognised only by governments. Additionally the global nature of many participatory media initiatives, such as the Independent Media Center, makes talking of journalism in relation to a particular nation-state largely redundant as its production and dissemination do not recognise national boundaries. Some additional names given to the concept based on this analysis are "grassroots media," "people's media," or "participatory media."
Some major news reporting agencies, threatened by the speed with which news is reported and delivered by citizen journalism, have launched campaigns to bring in readers and financial support. For example, Bill Johnson, president of Embarcadero Media, which publishes several Northern California newspapers, issued an online statement asking readers to subscribe to local newspapers in order to keep them financially solvent. Johnson put special emphasis on the critical role played by local newspapers, which, he argues, "reflect the values of the residents and businesses, challenge assumptions and shine a light on our imperfections and aspirations."
Dan Gillmor, former technology columnist with the San Jose Mercury News, is one of the foremost proponents of citizen journalism, and founded a nonprofit, the Center for Citizen Media, to help promote it. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's French-language television network has also organized a weekly public affairs program called, "5 sur 5", which has been organizing and promoting citizen-based journalism since 2001. On the program, viewers submit questions on a wide variety of topics, and they, accompanied by staff journalists, get to interview experts to obtain answers to their questions.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, was one of public journalism's earliest proponents. From 1993 to 1997, he directed the Project on Public Life and the Press, funded by the Knight Foundation and housed at NYU. He also currently runs the PressThink weblog.
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