The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

True citizen journalism

We had an interesting email come in the Powers That Be here at Mizzou the other day. It was from Vadim Gorelik, one of the people run the citizen journalism Web site Neaju, promoting the site’s work and some of their activities. A couple lines from an email exchange caught my attention (and emphasis is mine):

As a mentor to future journalists, I am certain you are aware of increasing profiteering and sensationalism that is increasingly dominating American journalism, often at the expense of the value we all hold near and dear to our hearts – journalistic integrity. It is for that reason that we’ve created the first true citizen journalism site on the Internet –

The first “true” cit-j site. When our own Clyde Bentley wrote back and pointed out that OhMyNews has been online for, like, the whole millenium so far and that others (including MyMissourian) had been up since 2004 and beyond, the response was even more interesting.

I will take an issue with your reference to OhMyNews as a true citizen journalism site. Although they have been around for a long time, and is probably one of the most successful CJ efforts, they do exercise editorial control over their submissions, which I believe is stepping away from being true to the ideals of citizen journalism.

This is not meant to criticize those doing what they’re doing over at Neaju, but I believe that the sentiments expressed by Vadim get to the heart of a lot of debates we’re having in both the industry and academia about the citizen journalism phenomenon. Is it journalism? Is it news? Are they journalists or citizens doing journalism? What makes Timmy’s art class drawing journalism and not the latest refrigerator-magnet fare?

If anything, Vadim’s response misses the point: the rise of cit-j has led to a really cool discussion within the industry, and that is the question of what true journalism is. Four years ago I would have had a pretty unequivocally narrow definition; today, I am not nearly as easy to pin down. Thus, I’m not sure anyone really has the right to claim what “true” citizen journalism is, because we can’t even agree anymore on what real journalism is. Except in the j-schools of America, of course. But no amount of navel gazing is substitute for an honest-to-goodness public discussion on the issue.

The definition of citizen journalism is so diverse and hard to capture that any definition from a cit-j practitioner that excludes a large class of what currently constitutes cit-j is bordering dangerously close on Web bigotry 2.0 (e.g. the “YouTube is so last year” crowd). And by overemphasizing the notion of control, I believe Vadim mistakes the process of individual self-publishing for that of a large group. If an individual self-publishes, they are wholly responsible for what is printed. If someone submits to a site, the law is still a little fuzzy on who is responsible for what when all hell breaks loose. Control is not a mechanism for shutting down viewpoints, but rather a mechanism to make sure the site that publishes those viewpoints isn’t shut down.

Truthfully, it makes no sense for any cit-j publication to shutLe but de poker game. out those who submit. Contributors are the lifeblood of a cit-j publication just as subscribers are for a traditional publication. If you try to weed people out, all you’ll do is discourage people from submitting.

In addition, a quick perusal of Neaju shows there is some editorial control happening. The very notion of a “Highest Ranked News Stories” or “Top 10 Reporters” automatically elevates some stories and writers to the front page. This is editorial function (helllloooo, gatekeeping!). My guess is it’s based on user ratings and Web stats, but it is gatekeeping nonetheless whether it is done by a computer or done by the mob.

The point, of course, is that we can play semantic games all day about what constitutes “true” citizen journalism, but it really misses the point. The conversation is new, growing, and exciting. And it is diverse. Let the people decide how much control they want by whom they choose to write for; you’d be surprised how many of our submitters appreciate a light editorial touch now and again.


February 18, 2008 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | 19 Comments