Talking about Citizen Journalism

On Thursday we move from discussing the pro-am hybrid of networked journalism to the more purely user-generated content of citizen journalism. In truth, the distinctions between the two concepts are somewhat fuzzy—the former being a new way of thinking and reporting on the part of professional journalists … and the latter, well, also representing a novel way of doing news, but more from the end-user side of the equation.

But let’s not get bogged down by semantics. The goal is to deepen our understanding of an ongoing but still unpredictable movement in the media toward a more participatory, open-source news paradigm.

You’re set to read my forthcoming book chapter (still a work in progress, so I welcome your feedback) and the oldie-but-goodie “11 Layers of Citizen Journalism” by Steve Outing. (And lest those readings paint a too-rosy picture of citizen journalism, be aware that early examples of the form have struggled, for reasons Jay Rosen can explain.)

As you think about the book chapter especially, some questions worth considering: What exactly is “citizen journalism” (and is that the right name for it)? Why should we care about the motivations, methods, and momentum behind this phenomenon? Regarding the last section of the chapter (p. 11 on)—how would you add to (or subtract from) the outline of trends in convergence, concentration, and conversation? What would you change? In short, what do you envision as the future for particpatory news? … Bottom line: Let’s explore the “so what” of citizen journalism.

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17 Responses to “Talking about Citizen Journalism”


  1. 1 Robert Rich February 11, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    First things first, wonderful chapter. Whoever wrote it obviously knows his stuff, and should be commended.

    Psst, I’ll take my A now. 🙂

    In all seriousness, I did enjoy the reading, more so than a lot of the other things we’ve read on the subject. In particular, I thought the mention of CNN’s ireport.com was particularly interesting, because it seems to be a timid, “toe in the water” approach by the mainstream media to branch out into citizen journalism. It’s obvious the big shots are still a little skeptical, what with the lack of links to CNN and the somewhat amateur feel to the site (which is of course intentional, since it is an amateur site, after all), but at least they’re trying.

    In some ways, this scares me, because if someone can find the right combination or setup regarding how to involve the public and get them contributing to news, then where will be needed? We’ll obviously still need designers and editors, but our job opportunities are going to decrease dramatically. That won’t be a problem if you can present yourself well, but still, it’s a bit frightening.

    All in all, this is the future though. There’s no denying that journalism is headed toward some form of pro-am model, but how exactly it’s going to look is still up for debate. Maybe journalists will become final drafters, and by that I mean visitors and citizens will report news that is hyperlocal to them, write stories, take pictures or shoot video, post it to the site, and then the professionals swoop in, making grammar or structure edits and doing any necessary fact checking. Instead of writing the first draft of history, like the adage used to say, perhaps they will make the first edits and publish the first completed draft of history.

  2. 2 meerarajagopalan February 12, 2009 at 12:22 am

    I think the main thing that citizen journalism is, is the feedback the reader is able to give. The point of view, the thoughts, and anything else they feel is necessary to tell their story.

    I don’t think adding a print edition would be a good thing. Nobody is buying the paper, which is why many newspapers are going online. The print edition, as interesting as it may be, will only cause the paper more money. Nos. 9 and 10 give the best solution, integrating the two, so you can have eyes and ears everywhere at the same time. One reporter can’t cover all the activities going on at the Obama inauguration; it helped that there were people everywhere getting different stories.

    I think we need to care because, like we talked about in class, it makes journalism “average.” It makes it so anybody walking down the street can upload a photo, write a quick caption and call it news. Calling themselves journalists in the process, writing about what is interesting to them.

    In the end, I agree with Robert, people will continue creating their own news, localizing to their inner-bubble, making it relevant to their lives. We will see this evolution in the coming years.

  3. 3 ldechant February 12, 2009 at 12:37 am

    This was really good! Citizen journalism to me is a very touchy subject. I feel it undermines the education we as journalism majors are trying to obtain. If we are studying about journalism, writing for our classes and learning the best ways we can succeed in telling the people’s stories, are we wasting our time? And almost equally important, are we wasting our money? Citizen journalists often do not have experience working in the journalism field. This is not to say that some don’t, but strictly to suggest that there are special ways to treat your interviewees and the way you write your stories.

    I was especially glad that you included the Obama/Clinton face-off in this chapter, because it brought Citizen journalism into present times. I think the anecdote about Bill Clinton and Huffington speaks volumes. She did not identify herself as a reporter, and got information that may have otherwise been concealed if she had identified herself. This is not to say that the information gathered was not newsworthy, but simply that she acted in an unethical way. The same goes for the anecdote in the beginning about her attending his fundraising functions, and debating whether or not to report her findings, because she is a supporter. This is the grey area Citizen journalists are facing. Is a personal blog that gives opinions and facts really journalism? I don’t think so. From what we have been taught journalism is telling balanced and unbiased stories to the public.

    I feel I am redundant in these posts because I keep reiterating how scared I am. I am not scared of the technology, but the way the media is evolving, and whether or not my training is going to be in vain. I hope to continue to research this kind of media to help me gain a better grasp of what people are actually trying to do. But until that point, Citizen journalism to me seems like an opinion driven medium that does not really uphold the journalistic principles we are taught.

  4. 4 Jill February 12, 2009 at 12:52 am

    I think if I were to give a really broad definition of citizen journalism, I would say it is the public doing what the people in the industry are TRAINED to do.

    Note: I did not say they do it as well or they even do it comparably well.

    I know there are some great exceptions but I have to say that one of the things I find compelling about citizen journalism is that they are not trained in the ways of our great profession. I think that is alot of the reason why there is this blur between citizen (supporter) and journalist (reporter) as was demonstrated in your paper, Seth. If you want to be a cheerleader for a cause that is great but don’t call yourself a journalist. Attached with that labels comes standards, primarily one of objectivity. Yes, I realize journalists are political, religious, etc. too but at the end of the day, the goal is to get out a story. One must wonder, why do all these citizen journalists come up: is it to pursue truth, and expand the public knowledge. Maybe sometimes, but in others maybe its just to put out a voice that hasn’t been heard yet (your own) with your own ideas and your own agenda. I think these problems are demonstrated in the Poynter article (specifically step #6 and #10). Your content could be questionable.

    Now that I have made that rant, I will stipulate: citizen journalism does provide editorial diversity. There are subjects in this world that the best investigative journalist will never be able to grasp (and some might not want to), but a person who has lived it and is personally invested in it could bring to life. Also, they exist outside the ‘bubble’ we discussed last class. Bringing in new life and questioning standards is rarely a bad thing in my opinion.

    Lastly, I wanted to discuss convergence in Seth’s article. He mentions not only hyper-local news but hyper-personal. I had a peer in one of my classes liken this kind of customization to looking in a mirror “you are just going to see you.” Where does Eat Your Peas journalism go? That might be something to explore.
    So I am going throw something out there: One of the advantages of citizen journalism is getting more diversity in news media, right? BUT citizen journalists have a huge part in creating these news verticals (more customized, hyper-personal and hyper-local), right? So, is anyone really being able to take advantage of this new diversity. Maybe the important thing is the topic IS out there if you feel the need to educate yourself. I don’t know if there is answer yet.

  5. 5 Sarah Lacy February 12, 2009 at 1:55 am

    The very start of this chapter sparked my interest. I did not know that the infamous quote from Obama had originated in reporting from a citizen journalist. A recurring question that we have in class seems to be how to define citizen journalism and distinguish it from professional journalism. An example of the ever-blurring lines is the Huffington Post mentioned in this incident. It has become increasingly popular and has gone beyond a being called a citizen run blog. I think these lines will continue to blur as citizen journalism increases.

    One of the most interesting parts of citizen media is the idea of collective intelligence. I know on the first day Seth described how just our small class can create a collective intelligence that can surpass the knowledge of just one of us. It is fascinating to be able to apply this to the entire public. But I often wonder why people are motivated to contribute. Do we get on wikipedia everyday and contribute what we know to the website? Maybe not, but there are those that do. When it comes to current events and the news more citizens might be inspired to contribute and share. Seth mentions, “It’s in our DNA to contribute.” I think that this assertion is at the very heart of citizen journalism. If people do not feel the need or the desire to contribute, then the entire idea is obsolete.

    In regards to the hyper local and hyper personal news, I think that websites created for just the purpose of sharing news about the people you know is hard to imagine. I already hear enough gossip though word of mouth. Hearing things “through the grapevine” will continue to exist and that is always on a hyper local level. Is it necessary for us to start bringing organized news services into this exchange? User created content on a website of this type is still human-to-human communication. Putting these exchanges into the public realm is definitely the wave of the future but I don’t know how willingly I accept that idea.

    As people begin to feel more and more compelled to share what they know with other in a public realm, citizen journalism will continue to grow. As the Internet becomes more comfortable to people they will in turn become more comfortable with putting themselves out there as the article describes. That is how citizen created content will truly shape the media landscape.

  6. 6 Kristin February 12, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Bravo, Seth! Your chapter was so well organized and enjoyable!

    First, I love the quote from Mayhill Fowler, “I’m 61, I can’t believe I would be one of the people who’s changing the world of media,” because this is a great example of the power of citizen journalism and a good inspiration for others looking to get involved! No one should ever doubt what they can bring to the table!

    Next, and something I have been thinking on for a while, is what will come of our role as journalists? (As Robert mentioned) However, even though I definitely do think journalism is headed toward this idea of professionals and amateurs both submitting content, I do not think it is ever going to reach a point where volunteer citizens take over. What I am trying to say is that I think trained journalists will always have some sort of role. Like Seth mentions in his chapter, citizen journalism is not going to take the place of the kind of journalism we have now, it is just going to complement it. To me, it seems that people, and now more than ever, are just so caught up in their own world and with their life and so busy, that we just aren’t going to see the reaction from the public that we want. I think it is going to take something much bigger, like newspapers shutting down content on the web for a week, for the public to take action and realize the seriousness of the state of journalism. I thought the mention of hyper-local journalism was very interesting, however, this is going to take a lot of dedicated citizens and journalists to put this into swing.

    I think in the future we are going to see a mix of several ways that information can be presented and consumed because we are going to realize that one method simply cannot satisfy everyone. And as people realize which new method works best for them they will follow it. After all, we are going to have this “abundance of information” that cannot just be dumped all into the same place or outlet. The information will need many different outlets to reach its people in the most efficient way possible.

  7. 7 Amy Neyhard February 12, 2009 at 8:37 am

    I have to agree with Sarah about the more people feel that they need to share ‘news’ and what not, the more citizen journalism will grow. Whether it is a citizen journalist or just a supporter.

    I’m glad that people want to get involved with the world BUT is it really fair that any average joe would write a story and post a picture while students are spending 4 plus years learning the craft? People need to understand the difference between professional journalists and citizen journalist and just because you have blog does not mean you are a journalist.

    I feel that I am reiterating that I am scared that about the future availablity of jobs because of these citizen journalists and so called citizen journalists. I am more than open to the new technology but just not the idea of people thinking they are journalists but are not. Like Seth said, “If you want to be a cheerleader for a cause that is great but don’t call yourself a journalist.”

  8. 8 Scott Richert February 12, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I really enjoyed the chapter! Nice writing!

    To define citizen journalism is hard. Can we truly consider comments on stories journalism, or does it have to be something deeper than that. I personally feel that the latter is true. To be a citizen journalist you have to be involved in the actual news gathering process, be it during the writing of the article or as an update to something that has already been written. I feel that this is an important step in the future of how information is delivered, If you have it, share it. I feel that citizen journalism isn’t going to kill our craft so much as it will help keep us on top of things, and assist us when we do falter. I see citizen journalism as a helpful gesture from the public, and not as a hostile takeover of the industry.

    There is an old saying about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I feel that this describes the new hybrid of pro-am news sources that are emerging. As journalists, we can not be right about everything all of the time. But, if we have this larger collective conscience that includes anyone with a computer and a keyboard, we have the power to not only perfect our work, but also to allow other people to be heard.

  9. 9 Lauren Oakley February 12, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Nice reading assignment. Thanks!

    There is obviously some confusion about the future of citizen journalism when it comes to how we as professional journalists are going to keep our paid positions when we are competing with the citizens of the world for bylines. We are obviously going to have to work together in order to survive and save journalism.

    Having feedback forums and blogs on news sites is a great way to start networking citizen journalism with professional journalism as stated in the article. When the public feels that they can interact and even contribute to the news by having the freedom to comment on any story or content, it drives them to continue their involvement with the publication because they feel that they can relate personally to the news.

    In my opinion, citizen journalism is very important to the future of journalism. We are trying to report news for the citizens to read, but who better to report the news than the citizens themselves. They know what they want to read, what news will interests their community, and what type of news drives them to continue their loyalty to a publication.

    I think open-source reporting is a great idea. The only problem with it is, as Stephen Glass claimed with his stories, what if your citizen sources get the facts wrong? You can’t rely on sources to tell you a story… you must be at the event yourself in order to get the most accurate reporting on it and not rely on open-sources. Otherwise, you’ll be accused of fabricating your story.

    As for addressing conversation, convergence and concentration, I think that society is aiming their interests for news and events more toward social networking sites. Facebook, Myspace, or whatever your social website may be is where the media needs to concentrate their efforts towards. If we can somehow mesh social sites more with news consumption, it will solve a lot of declines in readership I think.

    I think the future of participatory news is that we are going to rely much more on citizens for our news content than we already do. Blogs will become credible sources, twitter will be watched more closely and adding a list of credits at the end of news content for citizens that contributed and helped with the article will be included I think.

  10. 10 Justine February 12, 2009 at 10:28 am

    This was much easier and more interesting to read than our textbook. I enjoyed your writing style… but then again who’s going to tell you it’s awful when you’re distributing the grades ☺ but I mean it.
    I think the term “citizen journalist” should not be used so lightly… Like Ronsen said citizens are participants have a right to report what they see and hear but “not as journalists claiming no attachments but as citizens with attachments who were relinquishing none of their rights.”

    We’ve all learned in J310 and countless other journalism courses that as a journalist one of our duties is to remain objective. Give the reader the story from all angles and don’t use your opinion because it downgrades the quality of the story. New media, network and citizen journalism are throwing this whole concept out the window. Now it’s all about opinions… journalists are all giving their personal (and sometimes researched, experimented and educated) opinions about everything. This new method makes it easier for citizen journalists to be much the same as journalists.. just sharing their opinion on subject matter.

    The idea is scary that citizens could one day replace the journalist profession completely… but I think the most beneficial model is the open-source cooperation, trained, professional journalists using input from the readers directly through gathering information/questions, reporting and actually writing. Like Seth has mentioned, the intelligence of the collective is much smarter than one. I think new ventures that combine the right about of professionals with citizens will succeed (like Huff Post and Gawker); I don’t see citizen journalism as being a short-lived trend.

  11. 11 Michele Pierini February 12, 2009 at 11:17 am

    What I think is interesting about citizen journalism is that people who never thought they could be journalists or have an affect on anything by expressing their views now have an outlet. Mayhill Fowler is a great example of that. At the age of 61 she publishes her thoughts online where it can get the greatest exposure. I feel like a lot of people who didn’t grow up with new media and the internet tend to feel left out of the growing conversation online, but Fowler went for it and created a space to express herself.

    The whole “dog bites man” thing is definitely an issue. People like to connect with what they read, but some can’t stand reading about perfect strangers. That confuses me. I would rather hear about someone I would have never had the opportunity to get to know than what happened to my next-door neighbor which I will probably hear about soon anyway. But area-centric news is important. To inform people about things happening in their community or at their backdoor still has a place in news. However I definitely think that “man bites dog” stories are the best kind of newsworthy.

  12. 12 samanthadeavin February 12, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Great chapter Seth! I really enjoyed the real life example of Mayhill Flower and the Obama campaign, as it helped put into context where these issues and debates over citizen/participatory journalism have emerged from.

    My main oberservation from these readings is that, like Seth described in his chapter, the way forward for citizen and participatory journalism is not a ‘either/or’ situation, rather a ‘both/and’. There is a reason that citizen and participatory journalism exists today – the political, cultural and economic developments of our time, in conjunction with the unprecedented technological advancements, force the inevitable evolution of the media and journalism. I think Seth’s idea of the ‘evolution’ rather than the ‘revolution’ of journalism makes it a little less scary. Isn’t it better that we are part of the evolution, taking courses such as this, than getting left behind and being ill-equipped to deal with the change?

    I still think there is very much a position and role for traditional professional journalism. As Seth said in the article, extensive lists of the ways citizens can add content and contribute to the media over simplifies the situation. Citizen journalism sounds so easy, but in reality, there are real skills, exposure to the online world, and some intellectual capacity involved. As the article suggests, most citizen added content is, for want of a better word, rubbish. Many sites have failed for realising too late that too little professional and intellectual content was included. As such, I think it is evident that there is still a demand for challenging readers and providing them with analysis and the context of stories.

    I don’t think we need to despair yet – rather be excited. We are right in the middle of this ‘evolution’ of the news process, and I think there is plenty of time, and many opportunities for us to make the most of it. I believe the balance between the ideal and reality of citizen journalism is still being negotiated, but will ultimately be similar to Poynter’s 10th step – the integration of citizen and pro journalism under one roof.

  13. 13 Christina G February 12, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I enjoyed Poynter Online’s piece on Web 2.0. I really like the idea of letting the public know that you’ll be doing a story and having them submit their creative ideas and questions for it. I think that even if you receive hundreds of questions you can use keywords to search through them and come up with a few good ones. I also like the idea of aggregating blogs for a news site.

    I have also been thinking lately that with the huge emphasis on news being everywhere, and citizen journalism, that there are lots of things I would not like the news to cover. The rave scene, for instance, was ruined by news coverage which got the anti-rave act started and portrayed the scene as a place to go to get wacked out on drugs, thus inviting those people in. Lots of great things get ruined when they become to popular and the mainstream media begins covering it.

    I’m glad that just as I was thinking this, I read Seth’s predictions that journalism will become hyper narrow. This will save my underground and keep news on the up and up. Good job, Seth! I’m relieved. I think that people will write about their specific niche interests and that it will make for good journalism, honestly. The niche magazines and online sites I read are great because they have such a narrow focus. News organizations? I think they should all stay quite broad, however.

  14. 14 Rachel February 12, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Like everyone else, I enjoyed the reading. Both Seth’s and the Poynter article helped define and establish the different forms of citizen journalism and where it may or may not be heading. As a person with an iPhone, I can already see how Web 3.0 is emerging, and have a little anecdote. On Tuesday when the thunderstorm hit Austin, I continually checked Twitter for updates using an app on my phone. My power went out and I tweeted that bit of information and about a minute later, the AustinWeather tweeted that information out, that power had gone out in south Austin. I know that might not sound exciting, but with the power out and my roommates turning to me for information on what was going on, I felt pretty cool.

    Judging from the comments here, there seems to be the fear that journalism as we know it is over and our training as journalists may be obsolete soon. I’m not really worried about that though that may be an optimistic viewpoint. Journalism isn’t fading, just the medium in which it is presented. There will always be a need for reporters to go where the citizen can’t and find out the truth. If you are good at your job and take the time to always perfect your craft, you will find work. It may not be with CNN right after graduation, but if you have insights into where journalism is heading, you are valuable in this market. To me citizen journalism just enhances the final product. I feel like this is an opportunity that we, as future journalists of America, need to embrace and harness for our benefit. The system of journalism may be significantly restructured in the next 10 or 20 years, but again, I don’t see this as a bad thing. Maybe I just like change more than the average person…

  15. 15 oliviafong February 12, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I agree with everyone above me; your article was well-written and easy to read.

    I think there is a lot of fear among professional journalists that their jobs will soon become obsolete, that people won’t need them anymore because ordinary citizens will be reporting the news. I agree that the model of what a journalist does will definitely change within the next 5 years (maybe something like points #9 and #10 in Poynter’s article), but I think that while people may like getting news from a person who doesn’t have to answer to anyone, they realize that this very quality makes their product subject to questioning. People don’t always trust the media, but I think they may trust maverick bloggers even less. Personally, when I read news off of a personal blog, I almost always go to a legit site like NYT to verify it.

    One thing I’m not particularly excited about: Web 3.0, mostly because I think being connected and accessible 24/7 simply isn’t healthy. Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in it, as in the case of the London bombings, but in a vast majority of cases, I don’t need a literal minute-by-minute update of the news or of anyone’s life. (I’m looking at you, Twitter.)

    Another thought: Journalists are known to be the so-called watchdogs of society and its institutions, so is having a lot more watchdogs really such a bad thing? While the things that Fowler caught on tape aren’t anything of paramount importance (it’s not like Obama or Clinton admitted to anything too outrageous), I think that politicians, leaders, what-have-yous realize that now more than ever, they are going to be held accountable for everything they do or say.

  16. 16 Simrat Sharma February 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I enjoyed reading your chapter because it was impersonal and informative. Love the “Bittergate” scandal!

    I found myself somewhat in agreement with the quote from MyMissourian.com, “If necessity is the mother of invention, panic may be the mother of journalistic innovation.” It is difficult to believe that what we do as journalists in the future will have so little with the image attached to it while we were growing up.

    That said, this is the future and its calls! The examples in the reading and especially the assigned article were a little radical to wrap my mind around. The notion that citizens would be THAT involved in the reporting and editing process is a little unnerving because where does it stop? Why do we even have journalists then? Citizen journalism as a separate parallel universe to the professional reporting is great. Even comments to aid and abet journalists is wonderful but absolute collaboration is a little shaky to depend on as a permanent model I think. After all, would people eventually get bored of trying to “help” reporters get it right? Don’t they have their own jobs to deal with? Ok, I do not mean to sound backward and anti-citizen journalism but I am just wondering if this is actually a sustainable model.

    As for predictions for the future, I think a spin-off of CNN’s iReport is a seems to be the best bet. It allows a big media name to open up some of its doors to the future of their business and yet, have their regular workings going on in parallel. Citizen journalism might also emerge at its best at the “hyperlocal” level where creators and consumers are equally interested in the content they are putting up. National news might still be industry domain.

    But the ultimate in this model almost makes journalism like a community service that everyone pitches in to do in order to maintain their community. This is great on the local level but we will have to be patient with journalists about this as no other professional as been asked to delegate a chunk of their job to the people they serve in the first place.

  17. 17 stephenkeller February 12, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I think the example of Obama’s campaign slip-up — or “bittergate” — raised an interesting point. Citizen journalists don’t have an established code of ethics.

    If a journalist posed as a supporter and wrote the article, there might have been a lawsuit.

    Shady practices for getting information can ruin reputation and credibility with sources.

    I think this quote neatly summarizes Seth’s chapter.

    “…Even if potentially millions can contribute online, relatively few of them do in any major way, and perhaps fewer still enjoy their stay in today’s “user-generated purgatory” of never-ending drivel. Nevertheless, Web technologies have unleashed a citizen-participation force unlike anything seen in the history of media.“

    We should remain skeptical of citizen journalism, but at the same time not ignore it. Citizen journalism can never replace the in-field reporter, and in a way I don’t they want to. User submitted content will always complement the story.

    I believe sometime in the near future we will see a piece of user submitted content contain damaging falsities or blatant lies against an important figure. The article or video will get picked up around the nation, lead to a giant lawsuit and cause us to really question citizen journalism.


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