Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What is a "Citizen Journalist"?

For some time now, I have been puzzled by the concept of the "citizen journalist." I find the term a bit uncomfortable and something of a misnomer...here's why:

It seems that there are two notions of the term. In the subjective sense, a citizen journalist is then a citizen who has taken up the mantle of journalist. The citizen need not have a background in journalism. The citizen might not even have an inkling that the first paragraph of a new story should consist of the Who What When Where Why and How of the event. Citizen Journalism in this sense becomes a kind of opinion/storytelling about an event one has heard about, or, maybe even witnessed. The citizen journalist is a storyteller, a raconteur, creating conversation while disseminating either personal information or personal opinion.

Witnessing an event, though,something usually important to standard journalism, isn't necessary for citizen journalism on this level. If the citizen is interested in being something of a Bill O'Reily of the blogosphere, he can simply aggregate a story, half read it, then give a diatribe. Or, she can simply write about her life, post it, and have others read it. She is, in effect, reporting the story of her life--a citizen journalist of her subjective reality. This is what many of those millions of bloggers are doing on a daily basis.

Now, if you ask some people, including Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine (who wrote about Yahoo News and blogs today), and Dave Winer, they'd probably say that the person who diaries and the person who rants on a blog is indeed a citizen journalist and should be considered as credible as any other journalist who is the product of a journalism school. After all, if reality is subjective, than each blogger has the inalienable right to be called a citizen journalist if he/she is journalling on his/her life and personal opinions. There is no need for any set standard, as the writing is relative and the writer's credibility will be teased out by the marketplace (perhaps in a link-building popularity contest).

I'd venture to say that their idea or citizen journalism is a very broad definition...a dicey one, too, if you consider that some of the diarists don't think of themselves as citizen journalists and some of the ranters think of themselves as citizen journalists in spades.

The other, more objective way of looking at the term citizen journalist is to look at the journalists who have become citizens. This would be folks like Rebecca MacKinnon and Dan Gillmor, who've left behind the world of broadcast and print journalism, have become private citizens (in the sense that they are not working for corporate media) and joined the fray of storytellers and raconteurs.

There are others like Joshua Micah Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, and Jay Rosen who remain well-connected to msm and academia while they blog but don't necessarily isolate themselves from those who are not on their professional level.

Still, there are others like Lex Alexander a newspaperman with the Greensboro News-Record who seems to fully understand the difference between journalists who become citizens and citizens who desire to contribute to the news like journalists.

Yet many write on the subject of citizen journalism and the citizen journalist think of the Man/Woman In the Street (like me) and want to give us lots of props for our form and aren't worried if we step on someone's toes--slander, libel, or just plain snarking. Our value will be determined in the "marketplace of ideas" (or "marketplace of knee-jerk emotionalism") as we jockey amongst one another for popularity.

When People (the aforementioned Man/Woman in the Street) discuss the subject of citizen journalism they are often thinking of folks like Marshall and Sullivan and Glen Reynolds and Duncan Black. They are rarely thinking of their neighbors or fellow bloggers. They believe that citizen journalism is a great thing because their perception of it is that its stories are being created by people who can debunk those who are immediately recognizable as MSM because they still have a toe or two in MSM (or academe.)

So, are we all on the same page when we are talking about citizen journalism? It seems that the understanding of what a citizen journalist might be and what constitutes citizen journalism is confused in the minds of those who bandy the term around at conferences, in print articles, and on blogs on a daily basis. Putting the average citizen who wants to be journalistic on par with the hard-core professional journalist who's decided to come back to citizenry (or who just wants to use the citizen-styled medium of blogs) could have serious consequences for the citizen. The professional will always find a way of rebounding from a scandal of libel or slander or rampant snarking--but can the citizen do the same? The journalist-cum-citizen who debunks something can be doing the world a darned good service, but does the citizen have access to the same kind of sources to get the same kind of credible information necessary to be a significant part of the debunking? And do those who are journalists really care about the citizens who strive to do more than just sit around and accumulate information--who truly want to be part of the media conversation?

Like wearing a rough wool sweater of terminology, I will remain a bit itchy with the moniker of citizen journalist, and will keep on questioning. Apparently, it's my job.

Update: July 14, 2008 Three years later and this topic is still hotly debated. Jay Rosen has been focusing discussion and Dan Gillmor makes an important distinction that the current state of citizen journalism has evolved out of "civic journalism" but that it is indeed different. As is "placeblogging"--not always "citizen journalism"

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