Citizen journalism

Citizen journalism (also known as public journalism, participatory journalism, democratic journalism,[1] guerrilla journalism[2] or street journalism[3]) is based upon public citizens "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information."[4] Similarly, Courtney C. Radsch defines citizen journalism "as an alternative and activist form of news gathering and reporting that functions outside mainstream media institutions, often as a response to shortcomings in the professional journalistic field, that uses similar journalistic practices but is driven by different objectives and ideals and relies on alternative sources of legitimacy than traditional or mainstream journalism".[5] Jay Rosen proposes a simpler definition: "When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another."[6] Citizen journalism should not be confused with community journalism or civic journalism, both of which are practiced by professional journalists, collaborative journalism which is the practice of professional and non-professional journalists working together,[7] and social journalism that denotes a digital publication with a hybrid of professional and non-professional journalism.

Citizen journalism is a specific form of both citizen media and user-generated content (UGC). By juxtaposing the term "citizen", with its attendant qualities of civic-mindedness and social responsibility, with that of "journalism", which refers to a particular profession, Courtney C. Radsch argues that this term best describes this particular form of online and digital journalism conducted by amateurs, because it underscores the link between the practice of journalism and its relation to the political and public sphere.[8]

New media technology, such as social networking and media-sharing websites, in addition to the increasing prevalence of cellular telephones, have made citizen journalism more accessible to people worldwide. Recent advances in new media have started to have a profound political impact.[9] Due to the availability of technology, citizens often can report breaking news more quickly than traditional media reporters. Notable examples of citizen journalism reporting from major world events are, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 2013 protests in Turkey, the Euromaidan events in Ukraine, and Syrian Civil War and the 2014 Ferguson unrest.

Critics of the phenomenon, including professional journalists and news organizations, claim that citizen journalism is unregulated, too subjective, amateur, and haphazard in quality and coverage.


Citizen journalism, as a form of alternative media, presents a "radical challenge to the professionalized and institutionalized practices of the mainstream media".[10]

According to Flew, there have been three elements critical to the rise of citizen journalism: open publishing, collaborative editing, and distributed content.[11] Mark Glaser said in 2006:[12]

…people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others.

In What is Participatory Journalism? (2003),[13] J. D. Lasica classifies media for citizen journalism into the following types:

  1. Audience participation (such as user comments attached to news stories, personal blogs, photographs or video footage captured from personal mobile cameras, or local news written by residents of a community)
  2. Independent news and information Websites (Consumer Reports, the Drudge Report)
  3. Full-fledged participatory news sites (one:convo, NowPublic, OhmyNews,, GroundReport, 'Fair Observer')
  4. Collaborative and contributory media sites (Slashdot, Kuro5hin, Newsvine)
  5. Other kinds of "thin media" (mailing lists, email newsletters)
  6. Personal broadcasting sites (video broadcast sites such as KenRadio)

The literature of citizen, alternative, and participatory journalism is most often situated in a democratic context and theorized as a response to corporate news media dominated by an economic logic. Some scholars have sought to extend the study of citizen journalism beyond the developed Western world, including Sylvia Moretzsohn,[14] Courtney C. Radsch,[15] and Clemencia Rodríguez.[16] Radsch, for example, wrote that "Throughout the Arab world, citizen journalists have emerged as the vanguard of new social movements dedicated to promoting human rights and democratic values."[17]

Theories of Citizenship

According to Vincent Campbell, theories of citizenship can be categorized into two core groups: those that consider journalism for citizenship, and those that consider journalism as citizenship.

The classical model of citizenship is the base of the two theories of citizenship. The classical model is rooted in the ideology of informed citizens and places emphasis on the role of journalists rather than on citizens.

The classical model has four main characteristics:

  • journalists' role of informing citizens
  • citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the news they are supplied with
  • more informed citizens are more likely to participate
  • the more informed citizens participate, the more democratic a state is more likely to be.[18]

The first characteristic upholds the theory that journalism is for citizens. One of the main issues with this is that there is a normative judgement surrounding the amount and nature of information that citizens should have as well as what the relationship between the two should be. One branch of journalism for citizens is the "monitorial citizen" (coined by Michael Schudson). The "monitorial citizen" suggests that citizens appropriately and strategically select what news and information they consume. The "monitorial citizen" along with other forms of this ideology conceive individuals as those who do things with information to enact change and citizenship. However, this production of information does not equal to an act of citizenship, but instead an act of journalism. Therefore, citizens and journalists are portrayed as distinctive roles whereas journalism is used by citizens for citizenship and conversely, journalists serve citizens.[18]

The second theory considers journalism as citizenship. This theory focuses on the different aspects of citizen identity and activity and understands citizen journalism as directly constituting citizenship. The term "liquid citizenship" (coined by Zizi Papacharissi) depicts how the lifestyles that individuals engage in allow them to interact with other individuals and organizations, which thus remaps the conceptual periphery of civic, political, and social. This "liquid citizenship" allows the interactions and experiences that individuals face to become citizen journalism where they create their own forms of journalism. An alternative approach of journalism as citizenship rests between the distinction between "dutiful" citizens and "actualizing" citizens. "Dutiful" citizens engage in traditional citizenship practices, while "actualizing" citizens engage in non-traditional citizenship practices. This alternative approach suggests that "actualizing" citizens are less likely to use traditional media and more likely to use online and social media as sources of information, discussion, and participation. Thus, journalism in the form of online and social media practices become a form of citizenship for actualizing citizens.[18]

Criticisms have been made against citizen journalism, especially from among professionals in the field. Citizen journalists are often portrayed as unreliable, biased and untrained – as opposed to professionals who have "recognition, paid work, unionized labour and behaviour that is often politically neutral and unaffiliated, at least in the claim if not in the actuality".[19]


The idea that every citizen can engage in acts of journalism has a long history in the United States. The contemporary citizen journalist movement emerged after journalists began to question the predictability of their coverage of events such as the 1988 U.S. presidential election. Those journalists became part of the public, or civic, journalism movement, which sought to counter the erosion of trust in the news media and the widespread disillusionment with politics and civic affairs.[20][21][22]

Initially, discussions of public journalism focused on promoting journalism that was "for the people" by changing the way professional reporters did their work. According to Leonard Witt, however, early public journalism efforts were "often part of 'special projects' that were expensive, time-consuming, and episodic. Too often these projects dealt with an issue and moved on. Professional journalists were driving the discussion. They would have the goal of doing a story on welfare-to-work (or the environment, or traffic problems, or the economy), and then they would recruit a cross-section of citizens and chronicle their points of view. Since not all reporters and editors bought into this form of public journalism, and some outright opposed it, reaching out to the people from the newsroom was never an easy task." By 2003, in fact, the movement seemed to be petering out, with the Pew Center for Civic Journalism closing its doors.

Traditionally, the term "citizen journalism" has had a history of struggle with deliberating on a concise and mutually agreed upon definition. Even today, the term lacks a clear form of conceptualization. Although the term lacks conceptualization, alternative names of the term are unable to comprehensively capture the phenomenon. For example, one of the interchangeable names with "citizen journalism" is "user-generated content" (UGC). However, the issue with this alternative term is that it eliminates the potential civic virtues of citizen journalism and considers it to be stunted and proprietorial.[23]

With today's technology the citizen journalist movement has found new life as the average person can capture news and distribute it globally. As Yochai Benkler has noted, "the capacity to make meaning – to encode and decode humanly meaningful statements – and the capacity to communicate one's meaning around the world, are held by, or readily available to, at least many hundreds of millions of users around the globe."[24] Professor Mary-Rose Papandrea, a constitutional law professor at Boston College, notes in her article, Citizen Journalism and the Reporter's Privilege, that:[25]

[i]n many ways, the definition of "journalist" has now come full circle. When the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was adopted, "freedom of the press" referred quite literally to the freedom to publish using a printing press, rather than the freedom of organized entities engaged in the publishing business. … It was not until the late nineteenth century that the concept of the "press" metamorphized into a description of individuals and companies engaged in an often-competitive commercial media enterprise.

A recent trend in citizen journalism has been the emergence of what blogger Jeff Jarvis terms hyperlocal journalism, as online news sites invite contributions from local residents of their subscription areas, who often report on topics that conventional newspapers tend to ignore.[26] "We are the traditional journalism model turned upside down," explains Mary Lou Fulton, the publisher of the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, California. "Instead of being the gatekeeper, telling people that what's important to them 'isn't news', we're just opening up the gates and letting people come on in. We are a better community newspaper for having thousands of readers who serve as the eyes and ears for the Voice, rather than having everything filtered through the views of a small group of reporters and editors."[27]

Citizen journalists

According to Jay Rosen, citizen journalists are "the people formerly known as the audience," who "were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all. ... The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable."[28]

Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy with a home-movie camera, is sometimes presented as an ancestor to citizen journalists.[29] Egyptian citizen Wael Abbas was awarded several international reporting prizes for his blog Misr Digital (Digital Egypt) and a video he publicized of two policemen beating a bus driver helped lead to their conviction.[30]

During 9/11 many eyewitness accounts of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center came from citizen journalists. Images and stories from citizen journalists close to the World Trade Center offered content that played a major role in the story.[31][32]

In 2004, when the 9.1-magnitude underwater earthquake caused a huge tsunami in Banda Aceh Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean, a weblog-based virtual network of previously unrelated bloggers emerged that covered the news in real-time, and became a vital source for the traditional media for the first week after the tsunami.[33] A large amount of news footage from many people who experienced the tsunami was widely broadcast,[34](subscription required) as well as a good deal of "on the scene" citizen reporting and blogger analysis that was subsequently picked up by the major media outlets worldwide.[33] Subsequent to the citizen journalism coverage of the disaster and aftermath, researchers have suggested that citizen journalists may, in fact, play a critical role in the disaster warning system itself, potentially with higher reliability than the networks of tsunami warning equipment based on technology alone which then require interpretation by disinterested third parties.[35]

The microblog Twitter played an important role during the 2009 Iranian election protests, after foreign journalists had effectively been "barred from reporting". Twitter delayed scheduled maintenance during the protests that would have shut down coverage in Iran due to the role it played in public communication.[36]

Social media platforms such as blogs, YouTube, and Twitter encourage and facilitate engagement with other citizens who participate in creating content through commenting, liking, linking, and sharing. The majority of the content produced by these amateur news bloggers was not original content, but curated information monitored and edited by these various bloggers. There has been a decline in the amateur news blogger due to social media platforms that are much easier to run and maintain, allowing individuals to easily share and create and content.[23]

Wikimedia Foundation hosts a participatory journalism web site, Wikinews.[37] The website allows contributors to write news which undergo a peer review prior to publications in some language editions (English, German, Russian) but not in others (Norwegian).



Citizen journalists also may be activists within the communities they write about. This has drawn some criticism from traditional media institutions such as The New York Times, which have accused proponents of public journalism of abandoning the traditional goal of objectivity. Many traditional journalists view citizen journalism with some skepticism, believing that only trained journalists can understand the exactitude and ethics involved in reporting news. See, e.g., Nicholas Lemann, Vincent Maher, and Tom Grubisich.

An academic paper by Vincent Maher, the head of the New Media Lab at Rhodes University, outlined several weaknesses in the claims made by citizen journalists, in terms of the "three deadly E's", referring to ethics, economics, and epistemology.[38]

An analysis by language and linguistics professor, Patricia Bou-Franch, found that some citizen journalists resorted to abuse-sustaining discourses naturalizing violence against women. She found that these discourses were then challenged by others who questioned the gendered ideologies of male violence against women.[39]


An article in 2005 by Tom Grubisich reviewed ten new citizen journalism sites and found many of them lacking in quality and content.[40] Grubisich followed up a year later with, "Potemkin Village Redux."[41] He found that the best sites had improved editorially and were even nearing profitability, but only by not expensing editorial costs. Also according to the article, the sites with the weakest editorial content were able to expand aggressively because they had stronger financial resources.

Another article published on Pressthink examined Backfence, a citizen journalism site with three initial locations in the D.C. area, which reveals that the site has only attracted limited citizen contributions.[42] The author concludes that, "in fact, clicking through Backfence's pages feels like frontier land -– remote, often lonely, zoned for people but not home to any. The site recently launched for Arlington, Virginia. However, without more settlers, Backfence may wind up creating more ghost towns."

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and writer-producer of the television series The Wire criticized the concept of citizen journalism—claiming that unpaid bloggers who write as a hobby cannot replace trained, professional, seasoned journalists.

I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying to.

An editorial published by The Digital Journalist web magazine expressed a similar position, advocating to abolish the term "citizen journalist", and replacing it with "citizen news gatherer".

"Professional journalists cover fires, floods, crime, the legislature, and the White House every day. There is either a fire line or police line, or security, or the Secret Service who allow them to pass upon displaying credentials vetted by the departments or agencies concerned. A citizen journalist, an amateur, will always be on the outside of those lines. Imagine the White House throwing open its gates to admit everybody with a camera phone to a presidential event."[43]

While the fact that citizen journalists can report in real time and are not subject to oversight opens them to criticism about the accuracy of their reporting, news stories presented by mainstream media also misreport facts occasionally that are reported correctly by citizen journalists. As low as 32% of the American population have a fair amount of trust in the media.[44]

Effects on traditional journalism

Journalism has been affected significantly due to citizen journalism. This is because citizen journalism allows people to post as much content as they want, whenever they want. In order to stay competitive, traditional news sources are forcing their journalist to compete. This means that journalist now have to write, edit and add pictures into their content and they must do so at a rapid pace, as it is perceived by news companies that it's essential for journalist to produce content at the same rate that citizens can post content on the internet. This is hard though, as many news companies are facing budget cuts and cannot afford to pay journalists the proper amount for the amount of work they do. Despite the uncertainties of a job in journalism and rising tuition costs there has been a 35% increase in journalism majors throughout the past few years according to Astra Taylor in her book The People's Platform.[45]

Edward Greenberg, a New York City litigator,[46] notes higher vulnerability of unprofessional journalists in court compared to the professional ones:

"So-called shield laws, which protect reporters from revealing sources, vary from state to state. On occasion, the protection is dependent on whether the person [who] asserted the claim is in fact a journalist. There are many cases at both the state and federal levels where judges determine just who is/is not a journalist. Cases involving libel often hinge on whether the actor was or was not a member of the "press"."[43]

The view stated above does not mean that professional journalists are fully protected by shield laws. In the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes case the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated the use of the First Amendment as a defense for reporters summoned to testify before a grand jury. In 2005, the reporter's privilege of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper was rejected by the appellate court.

Possible future

Citizen journalism increased during the last decade of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, associated with the creation of the internet which introduced new ways in communicating and engaging news. Due to this shift in technology, individuals were able to access more news than previously and at a much faster rate. This larger quantity also made it so there was a larger variety of sources which people were able to consume media and news.

Natalie Fenton[47] discusses the role of citizen journalism within the digital age and has three characteristics associated with the topic: speed and space, multiplicity and poly-centrality, and interactivity and participation.

With technological advancements, individuals were able to participate increasingly in journalism. Pictures or videos could be uploaded online in a matter of minutes and this paved the way for social media to grow as a strong producer in the industry. The introduction of technologies such as the smartphone increased the ability to access the internet. Many large corporations have shifted their focus toward online presence, such as Facebook or YouTube. New technologies such as virtual reality may open new avenues that media companies and individuals alike will be able to exploit for journalism.

Proponents and facilitators

Dan Gillmor, the former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, founded a nonprofit, the Center for Citizen Media,[48] (2005-2009) to help promote it.

Professor Charles Nesson, William F. Weld Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, chairs the Advisory Board for Jamaican citizen journalism startup On the Ground News Reports.[49]

In March 2014, blogger and survivalist author James Wesley Rawles launched a web site that provides free press credentials for citizen journalists called the Constitution First Amendment Press Association (CFAPA).[50][51] According to David Sheets of the Society for Professional Journalists, Rawles keeps no records on who gets these credentials.[50]

Maurice Ali founded one of the first international citizen journalist associations, the International Association of Independent Journalists Inc. (IAIJ), in 2003. The association through its President (Maurice Ali) published studies and articles on citizen journalism, attended and spoken at UNESCO[52] and United Nations events[53][54] as advocates of citizen journalism worldwide.

See also


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