Let’s rethink citizen journalism

byBen Colmery
Dec 14 in Miscellaneous

It’s time to finally get citizen journalism right.

That was one of the big takeaways from the meeting of news innovators called “Turn Up the Volume: Bringing Voice to Citizen Journalism” at The Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy in October. The consensus was that we've been calling “citizen journalism” the wrong name all these years. It's time for a rebrand. That term just isn't cutting it.

The problem with “citizen journalism” is that it insults professional, paid, rigorously trained, working journalists to equate them with people who often have only a modicum of training, or none at all. It also encourages news organizations to think citizens can be a cheaper alternative to professional journalists, which could degrade the quality of journalism. This, in turn, puts the citizen journalists in an awkward economic position, as some organizations believe they should not be paid. And unpaid content contributors are considered by many to be exploited.

In journalism terms, the term "citizen journalist" conflates being simply a source of information with being a skilled aggregator, analyzer and filterer of information. Editorially, it often mixes activism with objectivity in a way that puts both in conflict with the other.

But if not “citizen journalists,” then, what should we call them?

One of my favorite terms at Bellagio came from Harry Surjadi, who was recently a Knight International Journalism Fellow in Indonesia. He is launching networks of citizens across Indonesia to monitor implementation of REDD+ pilot projects meant to promote the sustainable management of forests and enhance forest carbon stocks. He empowers people with journalism tools to become conduits of information in their communities. He calls them "information brokers." However, I don't think “broker” applies to all circumstances.

Then it hit me—we shouldn't simply rebrand citizen journalism, we should rethink journalism.

The problem is, we're trying to define people from many different geographies, cultures, politics, religions, languages, economics, educational levels and personal objectives as if they fit into the narrow view of a single profession. Also, this segments them from everyone else in the news audience, as if only a subset of the audience dubbed "citizen journalist" should produce content.

Rather than define the citizens, we should define the platform or marketplace in which journalism exists. Let’s think of it as a news and information ecosystem, which necessarily includes citizens as fundamental components to uncovering the truth. Defining journalism and the ecosystem in this way welcomes people in, and enables them to become stakeholders that should be embedded within the news process. It does not treat them as if they are some singular, definable group outside the news organization. After all, truth cannot only come from journalists and the usual sources, but from all sources in the ecosystem.

Think about all the models driving innovation today. Companies like Apple, and increasingly those adopting the Lean Startup model, integrate their design, engineering and marketing departments to develop products. The open-source tech movement allows anyone with a computer to contribute to the code. Hacker journalists now prosper in a world once made up of hackers and journalists. Democracy itself is founded on the ethos that the whole is better off when each of the many parts has a voice.

Innovation is largely about breaking down the definitions that separate us. That is much more easily accomplished when we define the space, rather than define the people in that space. It is essentially what Apple, the open-source movement, the hacker journalists and democracy have all done to change the world. Defining individuals is how you create process, not innovation.

As professionals who parse through the noise and connect information, news organizations and journalists are in a prime position to innovate and drive this news and information ecosystem. So let's build journalism as an ecosystem, rather than a product, that embraces innovation, where news organizations, journalists, politicians, business leaders, activists, city dwellers, rural dwellers, the techno-advanced and the techno-constrained, and other everyday people are all seminal to generating and distributing a more complete picture of truth. This means evolving the whole operation to no longer view the audience as something outside, and no longer define citizens as citizen journalists. “Citizen journalist” is exclusionary, thwarts innovation and insults everyone in the process.

Here are a few good examples of what this new ecosystem could look like:

  • Uganda Speaks – Al Jazeera’s use of SMS and Ushahidi to engage citizens in Uganda for their opinions on Joseph Kony.
  • SeenReport – A mobile platform that many news organizations have used to access citizen-driven news.
  • Participatory radio in Africa – A project incorporating farmers in the creation of news content to drive food security.
  • Mi Panama Transparente – Using online mapping to engage citizens in news reporting on crime and corruption.

Ben Colmery is the deputy director of ICFJ’s Knight International Journalism Fellowships program.

_Image CC-licensed on Flickr via lucyb_22._