What Is Citizen Journalism?

NOTE: I get asked this question quite often, so I thought I’d take a stab at providing a definition. This represents my view only — feel free to disagree, question, or elaborate in the comments. I intend this to be the starting point of a discussion, not the last word. I originally published this post in another blog in May 2007. I’ve been getting many questions about it lately from journalism students, so I thought I’d repost it.

“Citizen journalism” is a clunky term that manages to be as open to interpretation as it is controversial. I tend to think of it this way:

Any effort by people who are not trained or employed as professional journalists to publish news or information based on original observation, research, inquiry, analysis or investigation.

Here’s what that can mean, more specifically…

CitJ can conceivably include anything from notes and quotes from a public meeting, to neighborhood happenings and trends, to an original analysis of a piece of proposed legislation, to a public discussion about conditions at local parks, to music and restaurant reviews, to podcast interviews with community leaders and characters, and much more.

…Yes, I know that’s very broad. But consider the diversity of journalistic (or tangentially journalistic) content typically offered by mainstream news outlets — this isn’t really that different.

Key concept: In journalism, the “ism” is more important than the “ist.” Journalism is a collection of practices that can be done by anyone — not just by a select few anointed by certain types of employers or degrees.

Anyone can commit an act of journalism. Remember: In the U.S. at least, journalists are not licensed by the state — for good reason. Journalists don’t merely serve or represent the public. They are part of the public.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

The work of citizen journalists often looks quite different from the kind of journalism you’d find in a daily paper. It tends to be more personal, often written in the first person. It generally doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive.

Quality is inconsistent. It may or may not attempt to be fair. Fact-checking and editorial oversight may be less than what you’d find in a newspaper — or it may be better, depending on the citizen journalist and the paper being compared. CitJ often mixes opinion with reporting.

Media pros often deride or dismiss citizen journalism as useless or even dangerous. Some — but not all — of those complaints have merit and are worth considering.

That said, in order to form your own opinion of citizen journalism it’s important to engage directly with it rather than simply ascribe to someone else’s opinion. The only way you’ll spot potential value is to keep an open mind, and keep your eyes open too.

WHO ARE CITIZEN JOURNALISTS?

Anyone can be a citizen journalist — seniors, students, PhD’s, homemakers, the homeless, immigrants, nuns, you name it.

The label “citizen journalist” is controversial, so many people who are doing citizen journalism as I described it don’t call themselves citizen journalists. Often they consider themselves simply bloggers, discussion leaders and participants, or vocal community members.

A lot of citizen journalism happens on sites and forums where citizen journalism is not the main focus. It just crops up as warranted. Therefore, any venue might occasionally offer some citizen journalism.

In 2007, J-Lab conducted a survey of sites that focus on hyperlocal citizen media/journalism. Their report indicates definite business potential: “Sites are set up as businesses, as non-profits or as ad hoc citizen ventures. In our survey, 139 respondents split evenly: Half described their sites as for-profit operations, and half non-profit. Among the profit-seekers are entrepreneurs inventing new kinds of media companies to tap user-generated news and information and to build revenue models based on local shopping, local search and online advertising.”

More commonly, however, people who commit acts of citizen journalism do so for free, simply because they want to. In my experience they’re generally passionate, curious people who enjoy conversation.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND CITJ?

Everywhere. I’m not kidding. Here’s a 2007 map Adam Glenn and I helped build for the Knight Citizen News Network that lists nearly 500 citizen journalism efforts in the US alone — and there are many more around the world.

In addition, citizen journalists can focus on issues, industries, or other non-geographic territory.

While many citizen journalists practice their craft on their own sites or podcasts, others opt to contribute content to community sites — including ones that are hosted and supported by news organizations. Also, news organizations are increasingly soliciting stories, photos, and other news-related content from their audiences.

DOES CITJ MATTER?

That depends. For hyperlocal community news, yes, citizen journalists are becoming a major force in many places — especially in places that the mainstream media tend to overlook.

For other types of news and analysis, how much a citizen journalist (or citJ venue) matters depends on the people involved — especially their personal level of dedication, expertise, and sense of ethics and responsibility. It’s a really mixed bag.

Happenstance also comes into play. A person on the spot of a major news event who’s got a cell phone camera and a Flickr account can make history.

…That’s a very basic introduction to the field, from one person’s perspective. Please tell me what you think and what you’d add or change, below.

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