'Citizen journalism' - it's still a case of 'them' and 'us'

Last week’s We Media Global Forum struggled to find common ground over the issue of citizen journalism, says Martin Stabe

IT WAS fairly inevitable: gather a roomful of media executives, journalists and bloggers for a two-day conference to discuss a topic as broad and poorly defined as ‘citizen journalism', and sparks are bound to fly.

And so they flew last week at the We Media Global Forum organised by the Media Center, an American thinktank, and hosted by the BBC and Reuters.

Sniping on blogs and IRC chatrooms during the conference, some in attendance on the first day in a cavernous studio at the BBC's Television Centre complained that the "suits" from "big media" on stage were still taking an "us and them" approach to dealing with bloggers.

Helen Boaden, the BBC's head of news, became the focus of the blogger ire after asking "who fact-checks the bloggers?" — and airing her concerns over "bullying" by bloggers such as those who forced the resignation of CNN's Eason Jordan.

Where were the "we" in the brave new We Media? Just one blogger — 7 July survivor and political blogger Rachel North — appeared on stage on the first day. The £450 delegate fee hardly encouraged participation by citizen journalists.

One of the most frustrated was Suw Charman, executive director of the Open Rights Group, blogger at Strange Attractor, and one of the "online curators" tasked with tracking the online coverage of the conference.

Charman finally had her opportunity to vent at a conference fringe event held in Soho on Wednesday evening.

"How can you have a conference about citizen journalism without any citizen journalists speaking?" Charman said.

Big media companies had spent the day asking entirely the wrong questions about the contributions of non-journalists, Charman said. The main concern of the discussions seemed to be how established media can best make use of material supplied by their no-longerpassive audience.

"You can't buy a community and then just exploit it," Charman said.

"Citizen journalism is not simply a matter of ‘Oh, we've got a few comments, we've got a few photographs of Buncefield' — this is the first tiny step to true participatory media, but you need to get into the real nitty-gritty of what makes communities tick and why they're doing what they're doing. Why are they sending photographs in? Is it just that they want the warm glow of satisfaction that their photo got published by the Beeb, or are there deeper social needs that participatory journalism satisfies? Until they understand that, they are going to screw up."

Anyone who has taken more than a passing interest in the emergence of participatory media over the past five years or so will not have heard anything Earth-shattering at the We Media forum.

In fact, most of the people in attendance at We Media could have saved the fee — simply by downloading and re-reading We Media, the now-seminal paper by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis that was commissioned for the first We Media conference.

What was heady early-adopter stuff in that 2003 document should by now be on every editor's radar.

What seems to be most troubling for ‘traditional' journalists is that the emerging participatory media inverts their values about what constitutes good publishing practice. As the original We Media essay noted, traditional editorial practices "filter, then publish".

Among bloggers, though, "publish, then filter" is the norm. BBC director general Mark Thompson told the forum that he expects "a fruitful dialectic" between top-down and bottom-up media in the new BBC 2.0. We'll see.

Contentious definitions Perhaps the only thing everyone could agree on last week was that ‘citizen journalism' is an unsatisfactory label for developments as diverse as cameraphone snaps sent to broadcasters, blogging and ‘hyperlocal' community news websites.

Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of global news, described trying to frame participatory media in terms of traditional journalism as a self-defeating exercise.

"I don't think we're ever going to arrive at settled or agreed definitions. I personally don't like the term ‘citizen journalism' because I don't think most people who are either providing material to big media or writing blogs think of themselves only as journalists," he said.

Indeed, nobody likes the term ‘citizen journalism'. Some find the very notion that non-professionals could be labelled ‘journalists' offensive and favour ‘witness contributors'. Others consider ‘citizen' a redundant modifier in the age of a participating audience where everyone is a journalist. And aren't all journalists, well, citizens?

There have been mutterings from some quarters about the Press Gazette's own use of the ‘citizen journalism' label for the new journalism award we launched last week.

For purely practical reasons, we've had to use a very narrow definition of ‘citizen journalism' to include only its most basic form — those ‘witness contributions' to established media from non-reporters' camera phones. As Charman told the We Media Fringe, true citizen journalism — or whatever it should be called — is far broader.

Hopefully a future award can broaden the definition to include other aspects of participatory media, such as blogs, local community sites, or perhaps some innovative tool that hasn't even been invented yet.

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