Why citizen journalism matters

David Silverberg

Citizen journalism is one of the most recent media trends met with both skepticism and gratitude. Critics attack citizen journalism’s credibility while proponents applaud an experimental model adding another voice to the media conversation. But judging by the rise of online readership and the popularity of collaborative content, citizen journalism could eventually convince its critics that it can hold a viable place in the journalistic landscape, adding another layer to traditional mainstream news.

In every corner of the world, citizen journalism is blossoming, primarily on the most democratic media platform, the Web. The site I edit, DigitalJournal.com, gives citizen journalists a chance to get paid for their reportage. Vancouver’s NowPublic.com says it has reporters from over 5,000 cities. CNN’s iReport.com, modeled after YouTube, has attracted 100,000 news clips since its August 2006 launch. The Arab world’s first foray into citizen media, Jaridtak, will base all of its content on submissions from everyday Lebanese residents. And OhMyNews, the South Korean trailblazer in citizen journalism, recently launched a school focused on teaching students about user-generated content.

What has given citizen journalism its muscle? Many user-generated outlets won fans during natural disasters, such as the Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004, where people armed with cameras captured the first few images of waves thundering into buildings. Also, the Virginia Tech shooting gave iReport.com chilling images from a student’s mobile phone camera. It wasn’t traditional journalism but it was unfiltered, raw. As Don Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media wrote about the incident, “We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft.”

A major shift in Web dynamics explains citizen journalism’s ascent. The “old” Web was seen as merely a passive tool, where Netizens simply watched and read content. But the Web 2.0 phenomenon is ushering in the age of participation — Web surfers want to control what they read and the simple solution is to create that content themselves. People who may have felt marginalized or ignored by the mainstream press, for instance, could find a home by posting news about their community, complete with cellphone video clips and digi-cam pics.

News outlet need to wake up to what a new era is offering them: enthusiastic creative voices hoping to get heard. They might not have journalistic training, and they may not understand libel law. But what news orgs lose in trained talent they gain in dedication, because citizen reporters will write about their community pro bono, if only to highlight an issue they want to see above the fold. In citizen journalism, unusual beats can be covered in an innovative way — imagine citizen bloggers writing about all the restaurant inspections in their neighbourhood, or the non-violent protests that don’t bleed enough to lead nightly newscasts.

Also, citizen reporters give investigative journalism a much-needed boost. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization, recently wrote: “We need someone, many someones, to do long, deep, boring research, for stories that may not even pan out. Without that, government at all levels will simply slide back into the nepotism and corruption of the 19th century.”

It’s important to recognize citizen journalism’s position. Right now, it won’t replace mainstream news. Whether by design or not, it hasn’t gained enough credibility to win over major media conglomerates en masse. And for a grassroots media trend, that’s fine. Its appeal lies in its underground attitude that is more rebellious than conformist. Eventually, though, media giants will realize how citizen journalism opens up the newsroom to include contributions from the very readers publishers are trying to woo. The truly progressive news executives will run with this new opportunity instead of twiddling thumbs and worrying about how to edit contributions.

At DigitalJournal.com, we’ve seen how a community can be built around a news site. There’s something inherently special in a Detroit resident’s report on her disgraced mayor’s recent sex scandal, instead of a bland AP story on the subject. Or a citizen journalist’s take on a new TTC subway station makeover can add insight to a topic covered to death by general city beat reporters. We’ve noticed how comments on particular stories can run to 150-plus entries on buried articles worthy of coverage. It’s as if readers are saying, “Finally someone covered this story! And now I can have my say.”

Like any media practice, citizen journalism can be done poorly or smartly. There are bloggers and citizen columnists who are dreadful writers, just like in mainstream publications. But once press leaders embrace citizen journalism with the idea to democratize media and bring value and unique colour to stories, we’ll be witness to an evolution slowly gracing every newsroom in the world. 

David Silverberg is managing editor of DigitalJournal.com, a citizen journalism news network based in Toronto. Email him at Silverberg [at] digitaljournal [dot] com.