Citizen Journalism—Blogging, Facebook, Twitter: New Challenges and Questions
Professor Dr.C.S.H.N. Murthy
Professor in Communication,
Manipal Institute of Communication,
Press Corner, Manipal Univesity,
Manipal 576 104 India.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Role of citizen journalism:
Citizen journalism—demands absolute freedom of expression?
The Supreme Court judgment on ‘blogging’ on social networking sites in the case Ajith D vs Shiv Sena, sent a warning signal to all the bloggers in India that blogging in any form, be it anonymous or explicit, is subject to the same restrictions applicable to the freedom of speech enshrined under article 19(1)a of Indian Constitution (Dhananjay Mahapatra: Bloggers can be nailed for their views, The Times of India. Feb 24, 2009). The provocation for the Supreme Curt to state so came in an appeal from a 19 year old D.Ajith from Kerala who runs a community website in which he posted some blogs stating that Shiv Sena is a divisive political outfit pursuing the policy of dividing the country on religion and caste basis. Aggrieved by these comments, the Shiv Sena youth wing in Mumbai filed a criminal case against Ajith in Thane police station. After obtaining the bail from Kerala High Court, Ajith filed an appeal in the Supreme Court to quash the complaint on the ground that the contents on a social networking site did not have defamation value. However, the Supreme Court did not view at the blogging as a means of absolute expression of freedom above the jurisdiction of any law or test of any law under article 19(1) a. In other words, its order clearly stated that bloggings are subject to libel and slander and if proved offensive in a trial by a court of law, the blogger cannot escape the prosecution. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Bloggers-can-be-nailed-for-views/articleshow/4178823.cms)
Though this was the first case in India to set a tone for value based blogging on line, a number of instances raising similar concerns or voices followed suit in various other forms including the famous legal notice which Barkha Dutt of NDTV sent to one of the bloggers who posted a blog on NDTV website criticizing her role of reporting during the Mumbai attacks (26/11). Citing this Hoot editorial writes as follows:
In India there was blogger Chyetanya Kunte, who backed down after NDTV sent him a legal notice for suggesting that Barkha Dutt\’s reporting of the Mumbai seige might have endangered lives. That led to howls of protest about NDTV\’s bullying tactics, and defences of a blogger\’s right to free speech. And from UK this month comes a significant and controversial High Court ruling which says that bloggers cannot be granted an order protecting their anonymity simply because they fear disciplinary action if outed. (The Hoot Editorial dt. June 25, 2009)
Though the advocates of citizen journalism and free blogging criticized the Supreme Court judgement stating that, “Today freedom of expression lost a case in India. The case tested the balance between expression of freedom and other freedoms, particularly in a context of social media activism. Who won? It is not clear. What is clear is that the freedom of expression ls lost?” (Nikihil Moro on Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group: Times of India New Delhi February 25, 2009).
The latest Hoot editorial cited above described how anonymous blogging has been hounded by The Times London to unravel the identity of the person (Richard Horton) behind the blogs posted on the inside happenings in the British police and the hanging balance of his future.
Aarthi S Anand, a Corporate attorney and IT law specialist, in her article—Blogging in the time of pink slips (The Hindu Opinion Page: Feb 25, 2009) cited several instances where employees lost their jobs or compelled to resign for airing their views through on-line journals or blogs. While citing the famous IIPM-Gaurav Sbanis—IBM episode, in which Mr.Sabnis posted a critical blog on the IIPM, which the IBM asked him to withdraw, following a threat from the IIPM to burn all its Lenovo computers purchased from IBM, she raised the question whether the law countenances the criticism on blogs as a permissible ground for firing employees? She also raised a question can private employment contracts be used to muzzle the freedom of speech? (http://www.hindu.com/2009/02/25/stories/2009022555551100.htm )
Of late the citizen journalism, which of course by definition and scope includes all kinds of blogging, face books, and twittering—is emerging as an alternative media ecology, fast gaining the attention of the media professionals and academics alike.
In a latest book, Citizen Journalism-Global Perspectives—edited by Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen (Peter Lang, 2009), the editors write:
Citizen journalism though certainly not without historical precedents, has evolved rapidly across recent years and is expressive of the surrounding culture, organizational structures, and politics of civil societies. Much hangs, clearly on what exactly is meant by ‘citizenship’ and also ‘journalism’ and the plural meanings and projects now pursued in respect of both. More generally, citizen journalism has proved to be creatively adept at putting to work the now constantly updating and superseding communication technologies that have become widely available. These highly portable, low cost, discreet, digitized communication technologies that are easily plugged into and uploaded to the world wide web have become for many an integral part of everyday life and the medium for the conduct of social relations. Animated by differing conceptions of both ‘citizenship’ and ‘journalism(s)’ now assert their presence outside, through and within today’s mainstream news media. (Preface xi)
Citizen journalism variously enters into and informs today’s world news ecology with its overlapping formations and flows of news, mainstream and alternative new media and new interactive technologies of news dissemination and user generated content, say the editors-Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen in their introduction to the book.
The present article examines the genesis and development of citizen journalism in India, in the backdrop of growing interest in it even in the main stream media where TV channels like CNN-IBN and NDTV have their own posts for the citizen journalism through blogs and posts apart from the specific telecasts (citizen journalism) on specific days, within the theoretical and conceptual framework of media theories and discusses some of the most important challenges this area of journalism encounters before emerging as an authentic alternate media backed by appropriate redefined media ethics.
Genesis of Citizen Journalism: Is it a transition phase or developed phase?
In the long journey over centuries, the transition of journalism from mainstream journalism to citizen journalism has given to rise to a number of offshoots or new forms of journalism which we aptly describe as new media and alternative media.
Where as the multimedia are the new media, the web journalism or online journalism is an alternative media. In addition to these newer forms, one more branch that is gaining more impetus in the West is Citizen Journalism or Civil media. During the course of transition some off shoots like the Development Journalism have come up too. As such the scope of the word ‘journalism’ is ever widening but whether the principles of journalism apply to the later offshoots as much as they applied to the main stream journalism is a billion dollar question. Since the term ‘media’ as is understood now is basically Western in nature, and in character and content, a lot of debate is centered round the new forms or ecology of journalism as to their ability to deliver the public good.
Though still in large part structured in dominance by Western news corporations and the news flows from the “West to the rest”, today’s world news ecology also incorporates established and emergent non-Western news formations and a plethora of alternative news forms and outlets generating news contra-flows and/or circulating oppositional views and voices—from the “rest to the West”, the local to global, write Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen (2009) emphasizing the dramatic reversal of role the citizen journalism is currently demonstrating in fulfilling its role as a media for public cause and good.
At the same time a thorough discussion is also on whether these forms of journalism satisfy the basic principles of different theories of communication and communication models.
Essentially, two prominent theories of communication—linear or dominant paradigm (top to bottom flow) and participatory (horizontal) approaches figure in the current practices of the mainstream journalism—whether it is through electronic or print. Generally speaking, eminent communication scholars like Arvind Singhal and Srinivas Melkote believe that the mainstream journalism or corporate driven journalism pursues the dominant paradigm model though of late these corporate entities do allow space for horizontal flow of information through blogs, posts, and citizen journalism magazines which is called hybrid journalism. However, development journalism confines itself to main horizontal and participatory approach.
However, one of the basic questions that often stare into our face is whether citizen journalism or civil media is going to be a promise of delivery for the people who are fed up with corporate market driven journalism? Though there is no direct and immediate possibility of saying ‘yes’ to this question, one cannot rule out the distinct possibility of it becoming a reality altogether. What began as a participatory journalism initially in the era of pre-web journalism with the readers /audience being asked to express their views on a particular/specific issue in print or electronic media, apart from a general welcome to air their views in the form of ‘letters to the editor,’ the citizen journalism in the modern internet-times emerged as the most strongest contender or a challenge to the mainstream press/electronic media.
What about gate keeping and agenda setting roles of citizen journalism?
But there are many questions to be answered in terms of discourse before citizen journalism/civil media is accepted as a full fledged journalism. It is known world over that the term ‘Journalism’ as a domain of knowledge and a field of practice is bound by certain processes such as gate keeping and rigid norms of ethics—ethics of fairplay. The social responsibility cast on journalism in terms of agenda setting and adversarial role is well documented and researched over five decades now. Journalism is a process subject to the theories of communication, parameters of communication models and communication research. As such today journalism is no longer just a simple process of reporting, editing and publishing. It is a process with far reaching applications and relevance to the wider readership/audience besides industry. As such today journalism itself has become a giant institution of billion dollars of investment, human resource and creativity, besides accountability.
At the same time, it has assumed the corporate tendencies and in the cut throat competitive world at the advent of cutting edge technologies, the mainstream journalism has become a target of acute criticism that it has let the ground off its feet in embracing the subjects like crime, sex, paparazzi, sports, etc more than the public good. Sensationalism and spin-doctoring marked the characteristic features of the present day market driven journalism. In the process, some critics of main stream journalism argued in favor of development journalism free from commercial trappings, where as some others argued in favor of on-line journalism or web journalism. But, in between another generation argued that citizen journalism/civil media (mainly FM Radio/TV) holds more promise in terms of delivery for the public good for the reporting through web blogging would be more faithful and come truly from among the public.
In other words, the criticism in support of citizen journalism is that the reporters/sub-editors who are currently reporting in the main stream journalism are unable to do justice to some of their stories which are manipulated by the editors to suit their corporate mandate. Evidently such feelings have become more and more of late in the aftermath of Iraq invasion by the US and its allied forces. Journalistic ethics suffered worst casualties during the Iraq invasion and there after.
The birth of citizen journalism, as evidently pointed out by Allan and Thorsen (2009), lay exactly in the crisis reporting and war time reporting. Later it spread to the other areas of global pandemics. Journalists who felt letdown or slighted by their editors in exposing the truth turned to web blogging or citizen journalism as the only alternative to protect the truth. It means the journalists at one time of their career feel that their reporting or writing should be above the hooks of gate keeping in the interest of truth and truth alone.
In the early days, journalism began as folk arts. In those days it was strictly considered as a one way communication. There was no gate keeping in the messages passed on to the public. The messages were of different types: general administrative and public service oriented, threats and warnings, important public affairs such as fairs, melas etc. Subsequently the communication developed in to pamphlets, small posters, hand written news letters, weeklies and journals etc. But most of them operated as individual messages of communication falling short of the definition of a full fledged journalism –i.e. One to many only. eg. King to people, a leader to people, a writer to people etc. There is no an institutionalized journalism with all the social inputs being put in one place as iin today’s media with the information from politics, law, crime, entertainment, business, etc.
It means collective collection of news and collective dissemination of news with gate keeping and other functions such as agenda setting and adversarial role were non existent in those days. However, in the later years journalism realized the importance of feed back and thus a space for the readers’ participation in the form of vox populi was created in the media. The initial space for the readers’ participation was ‘letters to the editor’. Thus one may call ‘letters to the editor’ as the earliest form of feedback or people participation in journalism. This practice continued unhindered for over decades. Later years, this participatory approach of the journalism evolved in to a number of themes. For instance the print media used to invite the readers’ reaction to a set of problems such as bad condition of roads, lack of lights in the streets, growing menace of drunkards, lack of environmental cleanliness, etc. In the last one decade the public participation on the select news items is also becoming a trend. People are requested to contribute their views in two ways: one directly to the media and the other is to send the views to the concerned reporter. The public participation has been further extended to even edit page articles and Sunday magazine articles also in the same way.
However, the electronic media in India for over five decades was insulated from the participation till the liberalization in 1990s. Both the government controlled radio and television did not give any space for the people to air their views, (except on entertainment programs), either on their problems or on select news items. In other words the news broadcast or telecast by these instruments cannot be checked with the local populace where the incident took place for their veracity or for the divergent views on the incident. Thus one sided stories/versions used to be broadcast on the radio and television, which is against the concept of standard journalism. Firstly there is a lot of gate keeping than required. Secondly the state controlled media lacked in the essential concept of feed back. Thus for a long time radio and TV journalism in India used to be mostly despotic and dictatorial.
However, the scenario began to change fast with the rapid expansion of satellite telecommunications, entry of multinational channels, and foreign direct investment in the print media in the post 1990s. One of the greatest contributions came from the internet and web sources through convergence. The alternate media gave ample freedom to the people to express themselves enhancing the participatory power of electronic media. At this time, the market interests of the corporate groups begin to dominate the editorial priorities and preferences, which meddled with the quality of reporting the truth and delivering information required for the public good. In an effort to circumvent these hurdles and to protect the public cause, came the citizen journalism/civil media, both of which operate in an environment free from the corporate manipulations, critics argued.
In 2006, writes Prasun Sonwalker, the first Indian website wholly devoted to citizen journalism was set up, named ‘merinews’ (called my news) and with the motto: “Power to people”. Upadhyay was its first founder and editor who called his website a ‘product with a mission; a people’s news plat form of the people, by the people, for the people, providing power to the people and empowering democracy. (Prasun Sonwalker, 2009). Sonwalker described the success stories of blogging on mobile phones which a Delhi based government employee Lalchung Siem used for protecting the lives of two people who fell into a river in the Saidan village in Manipur. Lalchung Siem actually established the mobile web blogging for preserving a tribal language specific to Hmar tribals. Though he discussed a few scattered examples of how citizen journalism had done wonders and benefited the local communities and the people of the North East, he did not try to place it in the context of a theoretical and conceptual frame work acceptable to the third world. Nor were there any traces of agenda setting and playing adversarial role like mainstream journalism in the North East. More or less what he quoted appeared to be amateur journalism in the form of web journalism or blogging.
How many forms of Citizen Journalism?
Against the backdrop of the introduction, one can categorize the citizen journalism in to three categories: Print Media Citizen Journalism, Electronic Media Citizen Journalism and Internet based Citizen Journalism. Given three categories, the print media citizen journalism and electronic media citizen journalism can be still considered falling within the standard definition of journalism as these two could be subject to multiple gate keeping. But, it is internet based citizen journalism which raises many questions about it being regarded as a full fledged journalism for there is no gate keeping at all. This makes it a simple linear Laswellian communication model for which there is no feed back system. One might argue that web blogs could be responded by multiple readerships and hence it could be considered a feed back. At the same time, these unedited responses could not be fully regarded as feed back; nor could they be taken up for summative evaluation of a given idea due to their very frequent low quality express and content.
How many Categories of Citizen Journalism– Web blogging, Face book, Twitter….?
Coming as it does, the citizen journalism is being expressed in different categories blogs or web blogging or face book or twitter. All of them have same or common goal—that is to express beyond a limit and express as freely as one can on a variety of issues. All of them have same interactivity and on line and offline utility. They can be expressed in all forms of mainstream media-with photos, graphics and film clippings.
A lot of research is being undertaken to analyze the web blogs and kind of public service they offer. Web blogs could be launched by any individual on a general basis or on particular topic basis. For instance one can launch a web blog on “Wicked way of Corruption in India”’ and might post his/her views in anticipation of public response to it. The low cost web launching systems in India had enabled the people to launch web blogs by many middle and lower income groups. According to Aarthi S Anand over 70 million blogs were being created by 2007 and a billion are expected by 2012. Given the salience of the internet and freely available and ready to use blog templates, unsurprisingly people are making online journals, creating virtual street corners with tea-stall ’gupshup ‘ about their daily lives and inevitably posting stuff about what takes up a large part of their day—their jobs and office life, says Aarthi Anand.
Thus, a variety of web blogs could be launched on different topics: Political, social, economic, caste, community, sex, national integration, cosmetics, etc. Some socializing websites like Google Orkut etc is also giving space for web blogging and expression of views. Web blogs could also be launched for promoting the objectives of the non-governmental organizations. In fact Prasun Sonwalker argued that through web blogging the political recognition tries to seek better amenities for the tribals.
Even journalists could also launch their own self web blogs. Celebrities like Amitab Bacchan, Ameer Khan, Sharukh Khan, etc launched their own web blogs in which they discussed about the important business facets of the film industry—such as piracy, north and south, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh etc.
Weighing views on blogs: Is unanimity of views through blogs possible?
Most of the professional journalists of mainstream press look at the web-blogging as spaces for personal comments or spaces for expression of personal views. One need not pay too much attention to these views, given the fact on any one issue; there would be a million divergent views. The purpose of journalism, they argue is to achieve a consensus and uniformity on certain major issues among the different sections of the society through agenda setting. But this is not possible for any individual to achieve though one’s web blogging, face book or twitter. An article—Why the twitter-bugs cannot change Iran’s regime—by Swapan Dasgupta, appeared recently in The Times of India (June 21, 2009), goes to prove the fact that Iran’s popular vote went in favour its present President Mahamoud Ahmadineizad, notwithstanding its popular opinion expressed through twitters and facebooks. Another argument is that a web blog is the manifestation of more divergent and unacceptable views floated by some self styled mavericks. In short, web blogging, though undoubtedly gives a greater expression to one’s ‘freedom of expression’ than the traditional print media or modern electronic media, but it falls short of the ability to integrate and unify. Sometimes, the web blogs could be lackadaisical and even more reckless towards social responsibility and may promote fissiparous or divisive tendencies. Eg. Al-quaida web sites/web blogs.
Prospect of Citizen Journalism turning into a full fledged responsible media
In the ultimate analysis, it is not easy to say simple web blogging promotes a healthy and interactive democracy. At the same time when corporate media—print and electronic—indulge in corporate cultures and politics of media, the ordinary reader finds himself/herself expression less. Firstly the collective failure of the media to represent the common problems of populace and developmental news give rise to so much of dissatisfaction among the people who in turn try to use web-blogs as their source of ventilating the grievances. Viewed from this angle, the web-blogging may be a symptom of disease rather than being a remedy. However, web blogging being an only effective alternative to ventilate one’s views, its continuity in the present form is desirable to keep the society off the tensions of regular life.
The web bloggers have the feel that they could first express and rightly use their freedom of speech. Secondly they feel that there is someone who is hearing them and is responding too. This itself is sufficient enough to validate that a healthy democracy must permit citizen journalism as a part of shock absorbing mechanism or as an alternative ventilating mechanism leading to cathartic processes. However, as long as it does not meet the gate keeping it falls short of the definition of a standard and responsible journalism. It might thus go a long way before being accepted as full fledged journalism. Till then it stays in a phase of transition and seeks development and refinement!
Therefore, there is no meeting point at the present between the advocates of citizen journalism and mainstream journalism though the bloggers were independent to report topics of interest for various communities within the laws of defamation and label and slander in India. Further the media houses which are pursuing market driven journalism also resorted to hybrid journalism using blogging, face books, twitters. It might be an attempt to preempt the foraying of citizen journalism–blogs, facebooks and twitters into main stream journalism. But, the hybrid journalism, as in the case of iReport.com quoted by Allan Stuart and Einar Thorsen in ‘introduction’ (2009) may lead to severe erosion of the brand image of the corporate houses as it happened in the case of CNN in October 2008.
Hence unrestricted blogging, facebook and twitter may prove a double edged weapon and still need to be standardized as a viable alternative to the mainstream journalism in terms of gate keeping and agenda setting.
Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen (2009): Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives. Peter Lang. UK and US,
Prasun Sonwalkar (2009): Citizen Journalism in India in Citizen Journalism: Global Pespectives. Ed by Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen. Peter Lang. US and UK. Pp.75-84