Citizen journalism, (see definition), hinges on the notion that the everyday person is a potential reporter in an ever-shifting media terrain. Active audiences within the public sphere are engaging with interactive media in very different ways within a new spectrum of media outlets. As paradigms shift from mainstream to citizen journalism, consumers are altering news production, with citizen journalists pooling multiple perspectives together. Amateurs, an independent and amorphous entity, are consequently dramatically changing the face of social mainstream media.

Media conglomerates hold a vast power over their audiences, as they effectively shape public opinion through their near monopoly on traditional reporting services. The communication of norms and values by elites to masses is often apparent in the news. However, with the entry of a participatory environment, access to creativity itself has been re-mapped as new avenues of production and dissemination increase, mainly through the Internet. The world is now experiencing global transactions which offer “extraordinary potential for the expression of citizen rights and for communication of human values.” (Castells. 2001: 164) The most significant change in recent times is the presence and ubiquitous use of the Internet – the collaborative net – which is directly disintermediating the central role these conglomerates fill, allowing for a larger variety and coverage of news to be broadcast than ever before. Shifting notions of the audience also add to the change in acceptance of other works, as a previously passive audience is given a voice, that of a citizen of a shared community. Citizen journalism turns the audience into the auteur and is therefore “[f]undamentally changing our relations with the audience- how they use new digital tools and what they expect from us… as we witness fundamental realignment of the relationship between broadcaster and the public.” (Richard Sambrook, Director, BBC’s Global News Division mentioned in Crawford article.)

Citizens employ technologies such as podcasting software, blogs, wikis, Internet-enabled camera phones and video recorders to help report the news as a community based journalism. Many believe these reports to be unmediated, providing a ground level view of the story covered. 7th July 2005, the day of the London bombings, was a pivotal point for citizen journalism. As the events occurred largely underground, the traditional media were not onsite with easy access. Images on camera phones became the main source of news reports. December’s 2004 tsunami in South Asia highlighted participatory journalism’s ability to cover breaking news in places with few regular reporters. Tourists and residents with digital cameras and camera phones quickly transmitted images of the disaster across the world. Similarly, with the US Airways flight 1549 jet crash into the Hudson River on 15th January 2009, the first images were broadcast by a bystander on twitpic.com. Footage provided by onlookers to the September 11th terrorist attacks not only allowed for a larger variety of eyewitness accounts, the stories and images provided by these citizen journalists became and continue to be the most used sources. Though it is an unperfected news form, citizen journalism can still have an immense influence upon the world, and it can either be a supplement to the main news, adding new dimensions and perspectives, or a way to bypass mainstream media and gain legitimate insiders’ coverage of newsworthy events. No longer are the media conglomerates fully in control of the information we receive; rather, those who at one point were mere eyewitnesses to an event can now easily bypass these constraints and tell the stories themselves.

The idea that consumers can become producers in an informal, uncoordinated way has been argued to create the new phenomenon of ‘produsage’.

This diagram describes this spectacle, whereby a clear distinction between producers and users becomes less apparent through collaboration on news production. The breaking down of these boundaries highlights a hybridity, with participants as users and producers of information and knowledge concurrently. “No longer is the audience at one end of the information pipeline. Citizen journalists… have broken the monopoly of knowledge.” (Weldon. 2008: 62) This denotes a sense of empowerment that users gain by the process. Media futurists predict that, by 2021, “citizens will produce 50% of the news peer-to-peer.”(Bowman, S & Willis, C., 2003). Might it be because “[j]ournalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive elite group[?]” (Leigh, 2007)

So, what does this all mean?  Certainly the cartoon at the top of this blog suggests that citizen journalism is merely recreational and an unconstructive, insubstantial emergent phenomenon. Can we firmly say “that a named source is better than an anonymous pamphleteer[?]” (Leigh, 2007)  I do think that free, user-generated content is transforming traditional media not only by providing a variety of perspectives on different world events, but also by creating a world where the new form of news is that which is shaped by bystanders. I also do consider that the ubiquity (and thus democratisation) of information-capturing technology is transforming society’s notions of what constitutes ‘news’ and what our expectations of it are.

It seems to me that, if you question whether citizen journalism is transforming our news, it turns on the idea of what is meant by ‘journalism’ and what its value-added role actually is in newsgathering and dissemination. Journalism is a profession which is no less demanding of skilled excellence than any other profession. In addition to being able to craft a piece out of words and images, forming a concise, coherent whole, there are other intangibles which the best practitioners bring to the table and greatly enhance the quality of content. These would include but are not limited to: ethics, balance, fairness, skepticism, insight, due diligence and accountability. These aspects are no small things to dismiss, but unfortunately they are not commonly found to a developed degree in everyday people. These are attributes which consistently manifest only with talent and passion, training and honing, oversight and discipline. Content is greatly augmented when those who gather and comment on news have special expertise in such areas, expertise often acquired only with great personal investment of time and attention, and often with financial and other resources accumulated and channelled institutionally. “The phenomenal rise of user-generated media is the result of an alternative system of production, one which transcends the constraints of physical capital,” (Rennie, 2007) which could end up demeaning journalism as those who practice it proficiently are lost in the sea of the mediocre. As things fragment and “splinter into a thousand Web sites, a thousand digital channels, all weak financially… we see a severe reduction in the power of each individual media outlet. The reporter will struggle to be heard over the cacophony of a thousand other voices.” (Leigh, 2007) A liberal-pluralist view, however, would be to consider all the opportunities this new landscape provides: the promise of media plurality and diversity, fair competition and therefore perhaps a higher quality media content.

Now, with this context, consider what ‘citizen journalists’ – essentially untrained amateurs — bring to the table:

On the positive side, I suggest three things: ubiquity, filtering and interest. First, citizens are literally everywhere. They can see what is manifest(ed/ing) and actually do understand some aspects with their untrained eyes. This universality is perhaps of extremely high value to world progress by massively expanding the documentation of our human condition in its quiet, neglected places and by bypassing institutional agendas, ‘the gatekeepers’ which filter and frame information as an exercise in power and control. Second, citizens are the ultimate consumers of much of what passes for ‘news’ and nearly all of popular culture. Since it is a tautology that they are interested in what they are interested in, it is simple circularity that what they see, upload, publish, and comment upon based upon their interests will closely track what they download and consume, making news more relevant and interesting to the homogenised mass. Third, citizen journalism may help filter news by deciding what and who are newsworthy. It then allocates space or time accordingly and selectively, as we witness a media over-saturated with information.

On the negative side, ‘typical people’ generally have woefully underdeveloped critical thinking skills. They think with their guts;  they overvalue intuition; they are insufficiently demanding of confirming/disconfirming evidence (both quantity and quality); they are blind to their biases and prone to self-delusion (e.g. confirmation bias, preferring the information which validates preconceptions; halo effects, a single perception leading to error; self-aggrandisement, an act purely to increase our own power and influence); they generally lack the talent, training, discipline and resources possessed by the professionals. All of this means that beyond the on-the-spot recording of manifesting events (e.g. the protests in Iran’s 2009 elections or the Indonesian tsunami in December 2004), or beyond things intrinsically superficial (e.g. ‘popular culture’), what passes for ‘citizen news’ will always be of dubious and inconsistent quality (e.g. the Internet and all of the urban myths and banalities which get emailed, blogged about or asserted on open and disguised advocacy websites).

There is no undoing any of this new development. The toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube, nor should it be. This development is a Hegelian dialectical process – thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Its full synthesis is a proper, merit-worthy integration of citizen journalism with professional journalism, accompanied by a re-education of the populace of how to self-interpret information. Some argue that we witness an ‘us and them’ approach within journalism between citizens and professionals, yet an integration of the two is increasingly evident. Therefore, perhaps, the question as to citizen journalism’s transformational function is redundant. What matters more is that the information with which we are provided is of high quality, credible, delivers thoroughness and is insightful within the audience-producer pool.

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