Citizen Journalism Awards version 2.0

Press Gazette’s second annual Citizen Journalism Awards is launching with a month-long online discussion on how best to recognise exemplary uses of grassroots media, individuals’ use of personal media for journalistic ends, and news organisations’ efforts to integrate these sources of information.

This year’s Citizen Journalism Awards, sponsored by online voting and petition-generating website Votivation, will go beyond the focus of last year’s honours.

The 2006 event was limited to the narrow definition of citizen journalism as many people commonly understand it – the use of readers’ photographs by major news organisations in coverage of breaking news stories.

Last year’s judges – including Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow, BBC News interactivity editor Vicky Taylor, CNN’s Nick Wrenn and Picture Editors’ Awards chairman Glyn Genin – selected some of the iconic images associated with citizen journalism in 2005 and 2006 (see pictures above).

The winner of the top prize, who asked to remain anonymous, took a photograph of a London bus just moments after it was bombed on 7 July 2005.

Second prize went to David Otway for a shot of the Buncefield oil terminal fire, taken from a plane overhead.

The third prize went to another iconic image of the 7 July bombings – Alexander Chadwick’s photograph taken as passengers from one of the bombed trains escaped through a London Underground tunnel.

These images were among the best-known examples of how the growing ubiquity of camera phones and the ease of sending digital images is increasing news organisations’ ability to source images from the public.

But some advocates of grassroots media object that the ‘send-us-your-snaps’concept of citizen journalism captures only a small part of the phenomenon.

Some go further, worrying that it is an often-exploitative practice that allows media companies to cut costs by using content sourced from amateurs for little or no payment in place of professional materials.

What has come to be called ‘citizen journalism’is about far more than a massive increase in readers’ input to established news organisations.

Online publishing tools such as blogs, photo-sharing site Flickr and video-sharing site YouTube – and a growing list of filters and search mechanisms that makes the deluge of information on these platforms manageable – has brought self-publishing to a wide audience within reach of many people.

This has led to the launch of online community websites, and individual stories reaching a public without the intervention of major news organisations.

Few people like the term ‘citizen journalism’as a description of the blurring of the distinction between producers and consumers of news. The term ascribes motivations to users of new media tools that simply do not exist most of the time.

Most bloggers and YouTube users have no aspiration to be journalists, and if they occasionally commit acts of journalism, then the word ‘citizen’is redundant. In those cases, it’s just journalism.

But the term has stuck. Over the past few years, many alternatives have been coined, all stressing the fact that most successful instances involve collaborations between professional journalists and amateurs. For example: ‘participatory media”, ‘pro-am media”, ‘networked journalism”, and ‘distributed journalism”.

Wired writer Jeff Howe described ‘crowdsourcing’as efforts where news organisations have sought the input of many active readers in splitting up complex reporting tasks, such as identifying broken civic infrastructre.

At its best, citizen journalism fulfils the promise of a never-before realised democratic ideal empowering all citizens to exercise their right to free expression, particularly on issues of broad public concern.

Over the past year, some high-profile attempts to create local online publications entirely through contributions from the community of readers have faltered, particularly in the US, but in the UK national and regional newspapers and broadcasters have ventured further into blogging and online community development.

B2B titles have embraced the idea that their audiences consist of people who collectively know more about the subjects they cover, and have created online forums, blogs, and social networking tools to harness this valuable knowledge.

It is the best of all this that the awards hope to identify and recognise.

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