One of the key buzz words of today’s news and information cycle is “citizen journalism”. I have for years now been hearing people talk about citizen journalism. Some people are doing work calling themselves citizen journalists. I have even seen research efforts exploring citizen Journalism and the work of so called citizen journalists.

This trend of citizen journalism generally refers to the trend of using web 2.0 tools by people who are not trained or employed by news organizations to communicate news and information or share their views.

The new media tools of online and now mobile enabled communication have availed almost everyone with internet access and access to a mobile phone the opportunity to tell what they want to tell. This can be through self or jointly owned blogs, reports to other online publications, reports to broadcast media (yes many radios and TV even CNN through IReport) sometimes depend on information filed by audience members to tell what the media house is unable to cover on their own. In a way it enables the established media houses to tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell.

There is no doubt that this has brought forth new information, and given more voice to people that are normally neglected or unreachable by the formal news media. They have filled the news and information gap since news media have long been accused of carrying stories and views of a select few.

But is it proper to call this trend “citizen journalism”, or for anyone to say they are a “citizen journalist”?  I have always had concerns with not the trend of ordinary people taking advantage of web 2.0 tools to tell their stories and those of others (which is what the trend wrongly called citizen journalism is all about), but with the very term “citizen journalist” or “citizen journalism”.

As a trained and practicing journalist, I find it almost insulting for someone to claim to be a citizen journalist or practicing citizen journalism (meaning there are some journalists who are not). You need to understand what journalism is to get my point. All journalism is aimed at citizens (read the good of) and all real journalists are indeed working for citizens.

I might agree with concepts of citizen media, citizen or community reports, community journalism but not citizen journalist or citizen journalism because not everyone who writes in the media, produces or broadcasts is a journalist. Just like not every media (channel of communication) is journalistic.

I still find a lot of mixing of the terms “journalism” and “media”. From my understanding, media are the channels of communication/ information flow. Journalism, while defined differently by different people, is the practice or craft of generating (following a set of principles that ensure public interest is served) and conveying news, descriptive material and comments on issues or events through a wide spectrum of media. While everyone can write, produce or describe things, journalists, or indeed those who do journalism must follow a number of principles including objectivity, fairness, accuracy, verification, balance, and most cardinal the love and practice of telling or exposing the truth.

It is therefore not appropriate to refer to whoever writes or reporters for the public as a journalist or whatever is reported or published is journalism.

Even if someone has trained as a journalist or works as one, and he or she writes or produces something short of the principles of journalism, such material should not be considered journalism. There are many trained journalists doing public relations, advocacy, propaganda or writing personal or group stories.

Journalists and Media houses should embrace web 2.0 tools to improve journalism

But this new trend where everyone can report or contribute to reporting should be embraced by all news media so it can be used to improve journalism. Truth be told, no news media shall ever have the capacity to tell stories from everywhere, or know all the issues in any community. Allowing non-journalist people an opportunity to contribute to the news media’s agenda and content is a big plus. This interactivity and engagement with the audience is beneficial for every media house worth its name.

Also, as one of my professors at UC Berkeley used to point out, it is high time news media and journalists in particular understood there is more wisdom in the whole community than in any one or a couple of experts or people we interview for our articles. So enabling platforms for all people to contribute ideas, tips or express their opinion on an issue is the best a journalist or news media who wants to be accurate, fair, balanced and objective can do.

Sadly, most media houses were built on this tradition of filtering what people have to say, to be the ones to determine what gets said and who gets heard. See a comment by one reader of Daily Monitor online to see the public interest in being involved and why they seek alternative media

“Hallo there, Thanks for all you are doing to keep us informed. I would like to make a complaint though. In the days gone by, we used to be able to comment on your articles online and we would not only read about our but also other people’s contributions. Today, it appears you have turned our comments into direct exclusive mail to your selves. What is the point of me writing a comment if no one but you will have access to it? I am very disappointed.” Submitted by Chafaon Posted July 25, 2010 02:42 PM

While I agree that many people are looking to alternative media to get the journalism they need, faster and in ways that allow them (audiences) to participate and get feedback, it doesn’t mean all the news and information they are getting out is journalism, let alone citizen journalism.

According to The Elements of Journalism, a book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, there are ten elements of journalism.  In order for a journalist to fulfill their duty of providing the people with the information, they need to be free and self-governing. They must follow these guidelines:

1.     Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

2.     Its first loyalty is to the citizens.

3.     Its essence is discipline of verification.

4.     Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5.     It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

6.     It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7.     It must strive to make the significant interesting, and relevant.

8.     It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9.     Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

10. Its the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

These are largely absent from the content of most so called citizen journalists as most are answerable to none and do not have to follow any principles in doing their work. No doubt the work of citizen reporters, bloggers etc is good and commendable as they add to information in the public know and give more voices and diversity, but it is a little too much in my view to call such people journalists and their content journalism. What do you think?

Gerald Businge