As the catastrophic fire blazed in Grenfell Tower, London in June 2017, everyone knew they would find photos or videos online, posted by citizens, on the scene before the professional journalists. Citizen journalists are now a common presence in the event of disasters, natural and man-made, but they represent a remarkably new phenomenon. This and other new media topics are the subject of discussions in Copenhagen at the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists.
The term ‘citizen journalists’ emerged in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. It referred to those in the disaster zone who took photos or video, or recounted their experiences first-hand.
“It’s a broad, expansive term,” says Stuart Allan of citizen journalism. Allan is the head of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University in the UK. The term “includes someone who happens to be in the right place at the wrong time with their smartphone in their pocket and has the presence of mind to bear witness to something unfolding before them,” he adds.
Allan is partly interested in what it actually means, and sees links between citizen journalism and citizen science. In both cases, citizens have had to jostle with the pros before gaining ground.
Allan first became interested in citizens’ contributions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He spoke to a large number of journalists and visited lots of newsrooms. “Invariably people’s response was very dismissive, even defensive. Things changed gradually though,” he says. He points to the 2005 London tube bombings as a watershed, with citizens contributing greatly to reporting.
Allan has edited a series of books on citizen journalism with Einar Thorsen at Bournemouth University in the UK. The books examine case studies of citizen journalism. Thorsen, who is associate director of the Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture & Community at Bournemouth University, also sees positives in the phenomenon of citizen journalism. Ordinary people have until now been marginalised in mainstream news, or brought in to provide side comments, not to dictate issues, but this is changing. “It’s a normalised part of the news cycle now. We expect eye witness footage during any terrorist attack or disaster. That is a dramatic shift from 10 to 15 year ago,” says Thorsen.
Citizen journalists can be more than eyewitnesses, though. They have already played a role in climate change reporting, addressing the Trump administration in the United States’ attempts to undermine environmental science. “You see civil servants are anonymously, some publicly, publishing the science. Park rangers are taking on the role of journalists and making sure the information gets out,” says Thorsen.
“It has an important role in plugging a gap where mainstream journalists have either fallen short or failed to do their duty for whatever reasons,” he adds. Some journalists might bristle at the accusation, but take the example of Trafigura dumping toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire. The company took legal action to block reporting, but after some hints in the media, citizen journalists stepped in. “The company went after journalists ferociously,” says Thorsen, “but people on social media did some digging and then Wikileaks published some reports. You had citizen journalists holding corporate power to account.”
Some parts of the media are proving more skilled at taking the reins with citizen journalists, such as the BBC and the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Media studies professor Mark Deuzeat the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, sees many advantages to this approach, which allows for first-hand accounts of events, at a time of budget cutbacks in newsrooms. Citizen journalism also provides a more diverse range of perspectives. In some cases, cuts at local newspapers mean citizen journalists are the only ones covering town council meetings, providing news that would otherwise go unreported.
Deuze has written the book Media Life, which looks at how people now live their lives in, rather than with, the media. He notes that, thus far, most studies of participatory journalism are disappointing, and says its low status in the newsroom and the industry stubbornness inhibit its development. “Most news organisations have failed miserably at putting significant investment behind citizen journalist initiatives, but some startups and hyperlocal initiatives have done quite well in this space,” he adds.
Citizen journalism is a catch-all term, and not everything it does is accurate or fair. “A lot of what we encounter (online) isn’t trustworthy and does have to be treated carefully and independently verified,” Allan says. “In a funny kind of way it is allowing professional journalists to make the case for professionalism in journalism.” Subscriptions to the New York Times and other papers have actually gone up since the fake news controversy took off.
Some see citizen journalism as part of the problem, not the solution. It is wrecking the business model that sustained newspapers through most of the 20th century, says Philip Meyer, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina in the United States, who has written the book The Vanishing Newspaper. “Eventually, the marketplace might find a way to reward the trustworthy citizen journalists. Or the bad might drive out the good. The future belongs to whoever figures out a socially useful way to monetise the influence,” says Mayer. “The market is still sorting out ways to put a price on quality, but first it needs a way to identify it.” He sees citizen journalism as having performed poorly in the controversies over the Trump administration, while two legacy newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, are performing well.
Professional journalists are certainly crucial players, perhaps now more than ever, but their role is shifting in response to citizen journalism. Allan believes it is a phenomenon that is here to stay. “We are increasingly seeing that it is the job of journalists to pull together and curate different types of materials and then explain what is going on, offer interpretation, offer context, offer analysis. That, increasingly, is what counts as good journalism, rather than the more traditional definition of journalists saying, ‘I am the eyes of the public; I am the one there bearing witness,’” he says. Citizen journalists are now part of the news landscape, offering new voices, different perspectives and first-hand accounts.
Anthony King is a freelance science writer based in Dublin, Ireland. The article was originally published for the European Conference for Science Journalists 2017 (ECSJ2017) held in Copenhagen between 26 and 30 June 2017.
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