Time citizen journalism pulled its acts together

Citizen journalism, like the term ‘wiki”, is a phrase that has been reborn online. But unlike ‘wiki”, which we know translates to ‘fast’in Hawaiian and now refers to websites that anyone can edit, the definition of ‘citizen journalism’remains vague and contested.

One explanation for the controversy surrounding ‘citizen journalism’is the various synonyms it has. ‘Participatory journalism”, ‘stand-alone journalism”, ‘networked journalism”, ‘open source journalism”, ‘crowdsourced journalism’– without reflection, they all mean the same thing and are used interchangably to describe when citizens help collect, report, distil and broadcast news.

But to me, all these terms refer to different acts. They are related to ‘citizen journalism”, but each is a unique species that has evolved out of the larger family of social media.

Networked journalism and stand-alone journalism are both related to and encompassed by ‘citizen journalism”, but they are distinct from each other. If we understand them as unique acts, then the term ‘citizen journalism”, from which they have evolved, becomes less charged and easier to define. I believe journalists need to think critically about how to clear the air around citizen journalism.

‘Citizen journalism”

This is the act that started it all and while ‘Citizen journalism’with a capital ‘C’refers to an entire class of terms, and hence the confusion, if we are talking about a single act of ‘citizen journalism”, we most often are discussing an individual, who is not a paid journalist, who bares witness to a newsworthy event and broadcasts it. Acts of citizen journalism in this sense happen by mere coincidence. People are everywhere and when disaster strikes, someone usually has a camera.

‘Stand-alone journalism”

In contrast to citizen journalism, this is when the individual isn’t reporting out of happenstance. The reporter, who is not acting as a ‘professional”, made a conscious choice to go out and investigate a topic. This term was coined by Chris Nolan at Spot-on.com.

‘Participatory journalism”

When professional and amateur journalists work together it is the most basic form of ‘citizen journalism’that news organisations tend to engage in. It occurs through basic comments on an article – when those comments add extra information, examples, or new views that the original writer left out. These comments can be an incredible source of value to a story and are very easy to invoke. This is the basis of ‘pro-am journalism”. Thus, reporters need to learn the art of community management; and acknowledge that they now have a nuanced relationship with readers.

‘Networked journalism”

Although it hasn’t reached its full potential, the idea is to organise groups of people through the internet to work on a single story. Like stand-alone journalism, it is a conscious decision, but large groups, rather than a lone reporter, do the work. Networked journalism rests its fate on two principles: the ‘wisdom of crowds’– the idea that collectives are more intelligent than individuals – and ‘distributed reporting’– the art of organising the online work flow, so that volunteers are efficient and happy to participate in a gift economy that produces news.

‘Open source journalism”

Like networked journalism, these projects are collaborative. They have multiple points or ‘sources’of information. But open source journalism adds an important element. Either a) the re-release of stories or b) sharing information among competitors. These factors make a project ‘open.”

The re-release of stories

In networked journalism, people work in collaboration on a single story. In open source, they work together on a story that is constantly refined and republished in public. Imagine a journalist who releases a story to the public. Then, using participatory or networked journalism, more reporting and information is added and the story is reworked and republished. This method can produce amazing results. Covering an election, you’ll need a definitive story once the results are in. An open source story will feel very anti-climatic. But covering development in a community, the story will probably last several months, lending itself to new versions.

Sharing information:

While this has major potential, it has yet to be realised. Imagine 100 newspapers covering the same topic: ‘Local effects of global warming”. Each paper covers its own neighbourhood, gathering the same information, local bird migration, average temperatures and more. Each paper would have a story serving its local readers, but if it shared that information with the other 99 papers, they could create a national view of global warming. You lose the scoop, but you get to be part of a story that is greater than that which your single paper could ever produce.

Citizen journalism no longer needs to be evangelised. As the internet evolves, social media will continue to splinter into different classes, species and breeds of acts that readers can engage in. Citizen journalism is, for better or worse, the rhetoric that journalists have adopted to capture a large class of acts. But in doing so, we have put the cart before the horse. The real question is, what are we allowing readers to do, what types of acts are part of citizen journalism? We need to identify and define them, so we can understand the different approaches we can invoke in a citizen journalism project.

David Cohn is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s school of journalism. He works at NewAssignment.Net, an organisation trying to spur innovation in open-platform journalism, as its director of distributed reporting. He also works for AOL as an ‘expert social bookmarker”. Cohn’s personal blog can be found at www.digidave.org, which is where he writes on, among other things, the emerging art of distributed reportingt

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