Discussing new forms of journalism



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What distinguishes citizen media from traditional media? Is it even still possible do draw the line? Is this really a new phenomenon or has it been around even before the Internet? These were some of the questions that guided our discussion on new forms of journalism during the barcamp science2discuss, which took place on 26 October, the second day of the Berlin Colloquium for Internet and Society.

Especially after the Iranian election protests in 2009 and 2010, more and more traditional media outlets have been relying on citizen media – or what they call user generated content (UGC) – to report on major news events. One of the factors that led to this development was that the access correspondents had to the action on the ground was restricted by the Iranian government and networks ended up noticing the flow of information coming from Iranian citizens, who shot footage with their mobile phones, tweeted and, essentially, reported from the ground, as a way of articulating the manifestations locally and informing the international community. 

Many newsrooms have now whole divisions to receive and verify information from citizen journalists. The BBC is one of the most famous examples, as Maximillian Hänska-Ahy and Roxanna Shapour describe in an article about what they perceive as mutual adaptions between citizen journalists and traditional media. The first try to make verification easier through the use of time-stamps in their footage, while the latter have increased their reliance on so-called UGC.

All over the world, citizen journalists may even risk their lives to capture and divulge accounts or footage of protests, police brutality and meaningful events, which raises ethical issues that seem to be still in the process of being answered. Does a media outlet have the same responsibilities towards a citizen journalist as they do towards a regular source or towards one of their employees? 

Despite the almost symbiotic relationship developed between both forms of media over the years, some distrust still prevails. Even though the term “citizen media” has been coined by Clemencia Rodriguez, an academic that defended the important role of media developed by citizens, it has been constantly used in a pejorative manner by journalists, as a way of pointing out that this kind of journalism was made by “mere” citizens, not professionals, as Moritz Queisner recalled. 

Platforms such as Global Voices, founded in 2005 by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman, have been helping overcome that distrust. With the aim of amplifying the reach of citizen media, Global Voices has grown exponentially over the past seven years and is now available in almost 30 languages, with projects that foment the introduction of citizen media in under-represented language communities, as well as reporting on threats to freedom of expression all over the world. Global Voices has a partnership with the news agency Reuters and has been cited by various other outlets, such as the BBC. Another example of citizen journalism platform that was brought up was the Korean website Ohmynews, acting on a more national level. 

However, participants of the barcamp pointed out that, with its network of over 500 contributors, Global Voices may have developed a degree of professionalism and an organizational structure that not all citizen media necessarily possess, making verification a lot easier, for example. Could it still be considered citizen media?, they wondered. 

Is it really the structure that distinguishes citizen media from traditional media? I’m not entirely sure. Something that the whole group seemed to agree on was that the motivations behind each kind of media may be different. Perhaps traditional media is more guided by agenda setting and news values, while citizen media, mostly performed by volunteers, may obey more subjective (?) criteria, such as the citizen journalist’s perception that an event or theme is not being sufficiently covered by mainstream media or their passion for a given issue, such as women’s rights in their communities.

In the end, we regretted not having requested a two hour time slot to the organizers, as our time was up too soon for such an interesting discussion. I’d like to thank the participants of the barcamp for the interesting questions and contributions to the debate. Hope you left the colloquium yesterday with as much food for thought as I did!