Participatory journalism: What do you think that means?

I originally wrote this post for my blog, but it’s generated such traffic I thought I’d also bring the conversation to J-source.

Citizen journalism, public journalism, grassroots journalism, participatory journalism—just some of the terms used to describe the public’s new role in the production of news.

But what do any of those terms mean in a practical sense? They seem to be used interchangeably, to describe the same or different functions.

Although citizen journalists are largely understood to work outside of mainstream media, they often collaborate with traditional journalists. What some people see as the epitome of citizen journalism—the original Ohmy News Korea—is actually a collaboration between over 60-thousand amateurs and 70 professionals. The citizens create the content; the journalists decide which stories make it to the web.

On’s Your Voice  page, the work of citizen journalists is profiled in “Citizen Bytes”. Independent voices and unique stories being shared on a mainstream news site—including reports from street-level in Cairo.

Clearly, there are no finite definitions—maybe because this is all so new. But there are two academic papers that offer the best breakdowns I’ve seen so far: Doing It Together: Citizen Participation In The Professional News Making Process and Exploring the Second Phase of Public Journalism.

For my own research, I’ve defined my own parameters for participatory journalism. You can read the full explanation here, but simply put, 

Participatory journalism is all journalistic content created collaboratively by journalists, independent media, and citizens, as well as content created independently by citizen or independent media that is then acquired or used by mainstream media.

Participatory journalism is exactly what happened during the G20 in Toronto. CBC had an army of citizen bloggers sharing their version of events on the CBC website—and they weren’t just sharing photos. Some of them ended up doing live hits for television alongside professionals.
It’s also the premise for OpenFile, where residents of cities like Toronto and Ottawa can suggest story ideas that freelance journalists cover.

So what do you think? Does my definition of participatory journalism fit your perceptions? If not, why? I’d love to hear differing viewpoints on this.

No matter what you call it—this collaboration between citizen and professional journalists, news producers and their communities, is just beginning to hit its stride.

Based on multiple conversations in the past few weeks, I decided to change my research question.

It’s now, how is participatory journalism changing mainstream media and public discourse?

When I put the 41-thousand words from my interview transcripts into a wordle what stands out the most is people think.

From what I’ve been hearing and seeing, actively engaging the audience in the news process allows for more diverse, varied, and original storytelling.

It opens up the door for public discourse because it amplifies discussions that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked.

Perhaps McLuhan’s statement “the user is the content” will turn out to be more prophetic than the “medium is the message”.