The new age concept of Citizen Journalism started in the USA as a counter movement against the eroding trust in the media and widespread disillusionment in the public with politics and civic affairs. And what started then has now become a rather well known New Media concept. It is known today for various reasons and by many names. Titles like ‘public’, ‘participatory’, ‘guerrilla’ and ‘street journalism’ describe various perceptions this concept which, according to the seminal 2003 report We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information, is basically a concept in which members of the public play an active role in “the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information”. The authors of the report, Bowman and Willis, opine that “The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.”
Citizen journalism, a part of New Media, is a form of citizen media and user generated media. It can be practiced at the individual level, or in groups etc. However this should not be confused with sections of journalism like ‘community journalism’ or ‘civic journalism’, which are practiced by working journalists, or for that matter, with ‘collaborative journalism’ which is practiced by both professional and non-professional journalists working together.
Basically then, citizen journalism is an act of unprofessional journalism, by anybody with or without professional training in the field. All that is required is a certain amount knowledge of modern technology tools and the World Wide Web. In fact, it is the global distribution of the internet that has made citizen journalism possible. As a result, anyone with a camera (of any sort) in his hand can today become a citizen journalist, just though a click, or videotaping of events and uploading them to the internet for example.
The term ‘journalism’ however does not limit the possibilities and growth prospects of this new found tool for the general public all across the world. Today citizen journalism has branched out into various sub-divisions formed by the netizens, for the netizens. The driving force however, has remained constant through the years- the desire of the general public to collect and spread reliable information.
Audience participation is one such branch of citizen journalism that is impacting the world of Marketing Communications so much so that it has forced the companies the world over are redefine policies, change strategies and outlook, rethink goals and objectives etc. But how did this unprofessional form of journalism having such a great impact on the extremely professional corporate world of today? The reason for this is hidden behind a little human weakness: the desire to talk! We humans love to communicate, not just to share our feelings, but to compare and analyze and discover new things as well. This is an inherent tendency found in every one of us, and it is this inherent tendency that has made ‘the word-of-mouth’ such a powerful instrument for Media and Marketing practitioners. And audience participation in the form of comments attached to news stories, blogging etc., both negative and positive, has therefore become a powerful instrument of divulging information that might lead to the unpopularity and shame of a the concerned company.
Audience participation is only the tip of the ice-berg though. The wings of citizen journalism have spread far beyond. And today aspects of it like participatory news sites, “thin media” like mailing lists & email newsletters, collaborative and contributory news sites, and personal broadcasting sites etc. are making citizen journalism a fast growing phenomenon of the 21st century. In fact, so widespread is its reach that it is almost impossible to remain uninfluenced by it as intentionally of otherwise we have all been touched by one or the other of its widespread branches.
Terry Flew, a new media theorist, states that open publishing, collaborative editing and distributive content are the three elements “critical to the rise of citizen journalism and citizen media.” In this respect, any form of citizen journalism would be accessible to anyone and everyone, thereby creating a common world platform where one and all stand at par with each other. However, the concept has attracted a reasonable amount of criticism as well. For instance, some critics disagree with the terminology used as the term ‘citizen’ in effect excludes all those refugees and immigrants without papers who do not legally belong to any nation-state, and are therefore citizens at all. Critics from traditional media institutions hold the view that citizen journalism has abandoned the traditional goal of ‘objectivity’. Others have found citizen journalism sites to be lacking in quality and content. Still these are only minor stumbling blocks in the path of this phenomenon. And, sure to be nurtured by the further growth of the New Media, citizen journalism will, with time, deepen its roots as it eradicates all that has lead to these, and other such criticisms.