The definition of citizen journalism

I think, therefore I am.
I talk, therefore I am a citizen.
I write, therefore I am a journalist.

These hypotheses seem black and white to me. They are comfortable, and I like that. Citizen journalism is not this way, and I am learning to embrace its shades of gray. I have come to view my discomfort as a good thing.

Journalism is the who, what, where, when, how and why of being human. It means being able to ask questions and challenge our status quo in hopes of betterment. To quote Henry Luce, I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.

I have spent five years of my life in journalism school and have certificates that say so.  The AP Stylebook has been memorized; Tarbell, Murrow and Osgood idolized. I love journalism with my whole heart, and have lived in enough broom closets to prove it.

So please do not tell me that the woman next to me at the car wash can slap on the title “citizen journalist” and do exactly what I do.

Wait a minute.

What I want to do through traditional media is not the same as what I can do in reality. Profit margins and audience target numbers trump everything else. Perhaps citizen journalism is a more transparent form of public service for journalism, asking questions with a purpose to inform, educate or entertain from a personal viewpoint. I want to know more.

I arrived at OMNI about a month ago, prepared to whittle my questions into hard and fast definitions. This is not so easy. Wikileaks recognizes this predicament when addressing those interested as:

Whistleblower? Journalist? Citizen journalist? WikiLeaks writer, volunteer, supporter or techie?

Or better yet, what is the difference between crowdsourcing, grassroots journalism and citizen journalism? I decided to just see how much I could read on or near the evolving relationship between people and their news. Two weeks in and I thought my brain would explode with the chameleon nature of citizen journalism.

  • “The problem is that it is a terrible term,” said Howard Finberg, director of Poynter’s News University. “I’m a journalist by profession but I’ve always been a citizen and never considered myself anything other than a citizen.”
  • “It is a question of who is a journalist, and the important issue is what information we can trust,” said Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media. “I don’t care what people call themselves.”

Not surprisingly, I did not find any such clear cut answers. Here are a few attempts by a few big names that I have found in my web exploration.

YouTube’s Steve Grove gave a conservative view  this in a recent Nieman Report:

Citizen reporters: Our most frequent contributor is someone who captures an event on video and uploads it to YouTube. (I don’t use the words “citizen journalist” because I don’t think any person who happens to take video of something is necessarily practicing journalism, a skill that requires some training.) Citizen reporters are ensuring that many more events around the world are being captured on video now, and through YouTube, they reach a global audience.

The collective wisdom of Wikipedia offers this loose definition, and much more in the full entry:

Citizen journalism (also known as “public”, “participatory”, “democratic”[1], “guerrilla”[2] or “street journalism”[3]) is the concept of members of the public “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information,” according to the seminal 2003 report We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information.[4]Authors Bowman and Willis say: “The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.”

In 2005 Steve Outing highlighted for Poynter Online idealistic notions of citizen journalism as 11 possibilities:

1. The first step: Opening up to public comment, 2. Second step: The citizen add-on reporter, 3. Now we’re getting serious: Open-source reporting, 4. The citizen bloghouse, 5. Newsroom citizen ‘transparency’ blogs, 6. The stand-alone citizen-journalism site: Edited version, 7. The stand-alone citizen-journalism site: Unedited version, 8. Add a print edition, 9. The hybrid: Pro + citizen journalism, 10. Integrating citizen and pro journalism under one roof, 11. Wiki journalism: Where the readers are the editors.

The list of possible definitions could continue, and will. I have gladly given up my mission to define citizen journalism. Trying to squeeze the concept into a neat and tidy box is anathema to the free, open discourse of questioning journalism. People from all variety of backgrounds are asking themselves what it means to ask, think and write about our lives. This act is closer to the public service of journalism than the motives of traditional media types today.

Several people talk to me about citizen journalists as people who “commit random acts of journalism,” borrowing from the colloquial “random acts of kindness.” It does not strike me as coincidence that both phrases speak to Luce’s notion of a journalist as coming “as close as possible to the heart of the world.” The knee-jerk desire to share and communicate is part of what makes us human beings.

Examples like Haiti and the BP oil spill (i.e. a NY Times article that talks about Twitter, BP and democracy) have shown me the potential for better communication and accountability. Citizen journalists in the 2009 Iranian protests illustrated the power of personal accounts.

The woman at the carwash has a story to tell, and I’ve always wanted to be the person to tell it. But with this open platform, she can speak for herself and most likely, better than I can.

This is humbling for me as a trained journalist. It is also a victory for me as a citizen. The terms bubbling up around citizen journalism include democracy, free speech, transparency, accessibility. I like what these represent more than I like my job title.

So I have put away my hopes for an easily definable solution to this citizen journalism movement, and instead am eager to make sense of this hypothesis: I think, talk and write, therefore I am a human, citizen and journalist.

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06 2010

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  1. 1

    I don't think that (just) writing made someone a journalist. A journalist writes for the sake of mankind, so he or she needs to employ the etiquette of writing too. Writing alone produce a writer, but a dedicated and responsible writer who writes to share the information in order to improve the society is the journalist.

    OhmyNews International had trained me how to become a journalist. Yet, I prefer calling myself a citizen reporter. As a citizen I prefer to be a blogger than to be a journalist. Professionalism demands more than just writing.

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