Aux armes, citoyens!

Citizen journalism. Sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn’t it, sort of like citizen soldiers—which originally meant citizens who armed themselves and formed militias to rid themselves of tyrants like George III (who had stationed an army of non-citizen soldiers among them). So, with citizen journalists, we can rid ourselves of the yoke of oppression imposed by media barons and non-citizen journalists, right?

Well, first, let’s define what’s meant by citizen journalism. To me a citizen journalist is anyone who, unencumbered by professional journalism training or experience, reports news (as text, photo, audio or video, and including fact-checkers and others focused on reporting facts).

To some, citizen journalism seems to be more or less synonymous with blogging, which it is not. Blogging covers a wide spectrum that includes “citizens” practicing “journalism” or publishing “news,” but it also covers news aggregators just posting links, folks like me posting opinions, and lots of people posting online what they used to put in a private journal, corporations blogging to market their stuff, politicians selling themselves, communities like Metafilter, and special-interest blogs on a myriad of topics.

At the same time, the term “citizen journalism” includes not only non-professional reporters covering news, but also non-professional aggregators like Drudge, collaborative news sites like Slashdot, and the kind of bloggers who fact-check and occasionally trip up politicians and mainstream media.

So, some bloggers are citizen journalists, and some citizen journalists are bloggers, but the two circles are more distinct than overlapping.

I’m agnostic on whether citizen journalism is legitimate journalism. As conveyed in the first paragraph of this post, the term itself seems a little pretentious to me, and in the few convocations of citizen journalists I’ve attended, there really does seem to be a perception that the oppressors of mainstream media are in cahoots with the ruling class and need to be overthrown.

The citizen journalists I’ve met are mostly deaf to any suggestion that most professional journalists toiling in the mainstream are serious, committed and ethical, and that even some of the owners are motivated at least in part by ideals rather than money. And they tend to have an agenda, often expressed as “democracy,” but tending to be strongly left-leaning—not that there’s anything wrong with left-leaning, I lean that way myself. But I prefer my journalists straight up, not leaning.

I like (here’s another oldie but goodie) Doug McGill’s 2006 essay entitled “What I’ve Learned Teaching Citizen Journalists.” Those lessons in brief are (you can follow the link for further exposition), quote:

1. Citizens are an untapped source of expertise and positive civic energy that journalists can help unlock.
2. There is no substitute for a strong, independent, institutional journalism.
3. Citizens can help journalists reconnect to the wellsprings of their craft.
4. Journalists need to learn citizenship skills, as much as citizens need to learn journalism.
5. A good citizen journalism class, like a great newspaper, allows for all types of expression — artistic, poetic, literary, photographic, musical, comical and fun.
6. Citizens create vital community consciousness through the discipline of writing journalistically.
7. I’m the one who needs to change.

Meaning by that last one, that the pros need to loosen up, there’s much to be learned from the involvement of citizens in the news process. And of course, since McGill derived these thoughts from teaching citizen journalism, it follows that his pupils were already at least one step on the road to becoming pros, rather than “citizens.” But it doesn’t seem like, at that time, McGill was ready to turn the store over to them; rather, citizen journalists, with some training, can nicely augment what he calls “institutional” journalists in a news organization.

Now, much has happened since that was written, so, up next (maybe tomorrow), I’m going to continue the citizen journalism theme by having a look at the “hyperlocal” trend, and ask whether, and how, citizen journalism can contribute to hyperlocal news ventures. And, I’m scouting around to see whether this has been done with any notable success.