Wednesday, 10 November 2010

What is a citizen journalist?

First, a confession. I still haven't got round to trying out the video camera I blogged two months ago about buying. I'm obviously not a natural citizen journalist.

Which brings me to the question that has been pre-occupying me over the past few weeks as I discuss it with my students. What is a citizen journalist? Is the term citizen journalism interchangeable with the term user generated content (UGC)? What of grassroots journalism and participatory journalism? And is hyperlocal journalism a form of citizen journalism? Are blogs citizen journalism? Is Facebook a form of citizen journalism, as one of my students suggested in her blog this week?

There is, of course, no shortage of commentators trying to debate answers to these questions. But as is so often the case in discussions about new media, boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Maybe trying to define anything in this area is pointless, as everything shifts constantly.

But I'll attempt it anyway. I would argue that the term "citizen journalism" (or any other description coupled with the word "journalism") implies an intentional element of civic or public service on the part of the writer, similar to traditional definitions of the journalistic ideal. So for example, amateur contributors writing for websites investigating wrongdoing or challenging powerful interests could be termed citizen journalists.

But readers uploading pictures to their local paper of a jolly day out in the snow are not citizen journalists. They are, however, providing the paper with user generated content, in other words content produced by amateurs/readers, rather than professional journalists. As citizen journalists are also amateurs, you could argue that all citizen journalism is user generated content. But not all user generated content is citizen journalism because it doesn't have that necessary element of journalistic and public service intention. Millions of people blog or tweet or use Facebook or run websites or upload comments to news websites with no desire to be seen or to operate as journalists.

What of entrepreneurs without a journalistic background who launch and run hyperlocal websites like for example William Perrin of Kings Cross Environment or James Hatts of London SE1? Are they citizen journalists? They are definitely doing what local journalists traditionally do, challenging big developers, finding out things other people don't want them to know. But face-to-face, they stress that they're not journalists. Arguably though, they have journalistic intentions and could therefore be called citizen journalists. Whether they want to be called that is another matter.