Volume 1

Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, Volume One

Edited by Einar Thorsen and Stuart Allan
Published in 2009, published by Peter Lang (New York)

Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives examines the spontaneous actions of ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary events, who felt compelled to adopt the role of a news reporter. This collection draws together 21 original, thought-provoking chapters. It investigates citizen journalism in the West, including the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia, as well as its development in a variety of other national contexts around the globe, including Brazil, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Palestine, South Korea, Vietnam, and even Antarctica. It engages with several of the most significant topics for this important area of inquiry from fresh, challenging perspectives. Its aim is to assess the contribution of citizen journalism to crisis reporting, and to encourage new forms of dialogue and debate about how it may be improved in future.


When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they now have in their possession to inform one another, that's citizen journalism. It is a global phenomenon because the means for doing it have been distributed to the population at large. Therefore our ideas about it have to be global, too. And we cannot afford to be sentimental about citizens or dismissive of what professionals do. Only a book like this can get that tough-minded conversation going the right way, which is the open way. In a word, the editors have succeeded.

Professor Jay Rosen
Department of Journalism, New York University

A wonderful sampling of recent cases with a truly global scope; a happy combination of new stories and the top scholars in online journalism. Going beyond theory, this volume demonstrates the variety and impact of reporting by the people, for the people.

Professor Mindy McAdams
College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida

Table of Contents

Section One: Eyewitness Crisis Reporting

In Chapter 1, Allan sets the scene for the book’s discussion by exploring what counts as “citizen journalism” from varied historical perspectives. Beginning with a brief overview of the emergence of the internet as a “new news medium,” he proceeds to examine several crises where the reporting of ordinary citizens made a vitally important contribution. Examples include natural disasters (such as earthquakes and hurricanes), political scandal, and the tragedies of terrorism, conflict, and war, among others. Allan’s aim is to discern the emergent ecology of citizen journalism as it has been negotiated through the exigencies of crisis reporting.
The Iraq war provides the backdrop for Wall’s (Chapter 2) analysis of the recent wave of warblogs- “a feisty new genre of blog that focused specifically on the terrorism wars”-written by Iraqis from within the war zone, and milblogs, written by current or former soldiers. Of particular interest is the way in which institutional forces have sought to censor and intimidate bloggers and even to use their “grassroots authenticity as a cover for sophisticated war information operations.” Despite this, she argues, citizen journalism is poised to have a central position in the future “as amateurs play an even larger role in providing audiences with first-hand information about the world.”
Citizens’ eyewitness photography-especially where the use of a cell or mobile telephone equipped with a camera is concerned-is increasingly playing a significant role in crisis reporting. In Chapter 3, Liu, Palen, Sutton, Hughes, and Vieweg explore the genre of photo-blogging in relation to six distinct crises, several of which were of global significance. They single out for special attention the evolving role of Flickr, the prominent photo-sharing website, to show how it serves as a community forum for crisis-related photojournalism. Of particular interest, they point out, are efforts underway to develop a set of normative criteria to guide the nature of social practice around photographic content during emergency response and recovery efforts.
The idea that citizen journalism can help victims of crisis is also the focus of Vis’s (Chapter 4) assessment of the performance of Wikinews in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the US coast in 2005. She illustrates how collaborative citizen journalism acted as a clearinghouse for disaster relief information, including messages from individuals willing to help the homeless. Moreover, Vis demonstrates how the Wikinews community, in striving to report on the crisis and its aftermath, dealt with issues such as the perceived “bias” of certain eyewitness reports submitted by ordinary citizens. The site’s Neutral Point of View policy, she argues, was sorely tested, especially in relation to the first-person reporting of lawlessness during the relief effort.
Empowerment is a crucial tenet of citizen journalism in India, a democracy with over one billion people. Sonwalkar (Chapter 5) argues that this new form of reporting is having an increasingly influential political function in highlighting social problems, such as the impact of severe poverty on those at the margins of public life. In a society where women, for example, “are seen as inferior and, in many cases, subjected to domestic violence,” blogging has enabled pressure groups to spark public discussion and debate “in a way that the mainstream news media have never done.” Citizen journalism, Sonwalkar points out, is being increasingly recognized as a powerful force in this regard.
Citizen journalism from within a conflict zone is the focus of Zayyan and Carter’s (Chapter 6) discussion, which explores how bloggers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories “have helped to tell a truth different from the one frequently related in the mainstream media in many countries.” Many of these citizen journalists choose to write in English instead of Arabic so as to reach a global audience with their message and to plea for basic human rights. Zayyan and Carter argue that in so doing, “Palestinian citizen journalism is shifting the terms of debate on the conflict in the Middle-East.” This reporting embodies a “simple hope,” namely that by raising awareness of their suffering, “pressure will be brought to bear on politicians around the world to help end it.”
In Chapter 7, Nip assesses citizen journalism’s response to the Wenchuan earthquake in southwestern China in May 2008. She reveals how citizen journalists were the first to report the earthquake both to a Chinese and international audience, providing eyewitness reports and expressions of personal emotion – grief, anger, and sympathy. Moreover, in a rare moment of openness under the Communist government, citizen journalists were also able to investigate and critique officials’ handling of the disaster. Such reporting did not completely evade state censorship, however, and Nip further discusses new government tactics such as infiltration of citizen-generated content – that is, paying for people to post content supporting the government as a strategy to subvert opposition and manage this new form of public discourse.
Rounding out this section, Thorsen (Chapter 8) explores how scientists researching the climate-change crisis in Antarctica are using blogging as a means to communicate directly with the public. He argues that citizen journalism can function as a form of educational outreach, giving us seemingly unmediated access to scientists who are recording the effects of climate change first-hand. This emergent form of science reporting is shown to provide an important contrast to traditional forms of journalism, where the process of climate change is a difficult fit for conventional, event-led news agendas.

Section Two: Citizen Journalism and Democratic Cultures

Khiabany and Sreberny (Chapter 9) address questions of citizenship and journalistic professionalism in an authoritarian regime by exploring the re-inflection of a more Western conceptualization of citizen journalism in relation to Iran’s radically different political setting. The Persian blogosphere, they demonstrate, provides a space for trade unions, radical student groups, and women’s movements to voice their plight, which is otherwise ignored by the traditional, state-controlled mass media. They show how citizenship and journalism are both experiencing a revival through innovative and alternative forms of expression in response to the political context.
Children and young adults are often sidelined in debates surrounding citizenship and journalism. In thinking of children as citizens “in the making,” Guedes Bailey (Chapter 10) explores the importance of “Newspaper Clubs” in Brazil, a project conceived and implemented by the Brazilian NGO “Communication and Culture” in partnership with public schools (local and state government). Since 1995, newspaper clubs have empowered children by giving them a voice as reporters of community affairs, thereby socializing them as informed and active citizens. Guedes Bailey’s chapter also highlights the continued significance of print-based publications in the developing world, where many people-in particular children and young adults-have “no access to computers and have little or no information about, or practice with, communications technologies skills.”
One of the most frequently cited examples of citizen journalism is the role of OhmyNews during the 2002 South Korean presidential election, a time when democracy itself was perceived to be in a crisis of legitimacy. Woo Young (Chapter 11) illustrates how the website functions as a counterbalance to the otherwise conservative media, maintaining that citizen journalism is integral to improving the country’s democratic system as it ensures that the diversity of South Korea’s public opinion is recognized. Indeed, the popularity of the citizen reporting at the heart of OhmyNews has made it the largest, most influential online newspaper in the country.
Despite Vietnam being listed as one of the 13 “enemies of the Internet” in 2006 by Reporters Without Borders, Nguyen (Chapter 12) argues that citizen journalism has “developed quite vigorously” there. Indeed, he illustrates how it has seen a spectacular rise in recent years, establishing a reputation for breaking news-often reporting events that would have been ignored by mainstream media as too controversial. In this way, citizen journalists are helping to create a realm of debate where the authority of the state can be called into question. The blogosphere has prospered, in Nguyen’s view, not simply because of technological advances, but also because of the governing regime’s “confident tolerance” in allowing such activities to take place.
While such tolerance is more often associated with Western democracies, Carpentier, De Brabander, and Cammaerts (Chapter 13) demonstrate in their analysis of the Belgian peace movement that citizen journalism is also here a means to enable alternative or activist voices to be heard. They argue that the “active presence of the Indymedia.be (volunteer) staff members” at peace marches and associated events “highlights the interweaving of citizen journalism and peace activism.” That is, activists both report and actively support the objectives of such activities. They suggest that citizen journalism needs “to be seen as an inseparable part of civil society,” since this form of participatory media enables citizens to “be active in one of many (micro-)spheres relevant to daily life, organize different forms of deliberation, and exert their rights to communicate.”
Citizen journalism is frequently associated with political activists seeking to challenge society’s established institutions and power relations. In Chapter 14, Salter explores the position of Indymedia’s citizen journalists in relation to libel, security laws, and incitement, drawing on recent examples where both private and state actors have attempted to shut its operations down. Salter argues that citizen journalists cannot simply “claim the rights afforded to journalists,” since the “privilege is dependent upon adherence to the rules” of law. Such activist citizen journalism, it follows, “will always be at a disadvantage compared to mainstream journalism-politically, economically, culturally and legally,” which has important implications for democratic dissent.
Peaceful protests are in stark contrast to some of the practices uncovered during the 2007 Kenyan presidential election crisis by Zuckerman (Chapter 15). He reveals how bloggers took on the role of reporters in documenting the election process and mapping the violence that ensued following the disputed result, providing a crucial source of information following the government’s ban on live media. However, citizen media and text messaging were also used in a more sinister way to mobilize different ethnic groups against each other. Attempts at moderating such hateful content led Kenya’s leading bulletin board site to shut down, while the government decided to block bulk text messages. Technologies “useful for reporting and peacemaking,” Zuckerman warns, “are also useful for rumor mongering and incitement to violence.”
The 2007 Australian federal election, in contrast, will be remembered for more peaceful reasons, most notably the incumbent prime minister losing his seat and the increasingly significant role of citizen media during the campaign. In Chapter 16 Bruns, Wilson, and Saunders explore the tension that developed between bloggers and mainstream media such as The Australian, with the latter attacking citizen journalists for having the audacity to criticize its election analysts. Experiences from the authors’ involvement in the hyperlocal citizen journalism project, Youdecide2007, are also shared. Based on this experiment, the chapter concludes with a proposal to “transcend the stale ‘pro-am’ dichotomy” by putting forth a concept of “journalism as social networking.” The authors here highlight four dimensions in which they argue “professional practice is changing to accommodate citizen-generated content.”
The 2008 US presidential election marked a historic shift in American politics through the election of Barack Obama. One of the key characteristics of this campaign was the coming of age of the Internet, which is explored by Fiedler in Chapter 17. His discussion begins with the occasion on which Obama encountered Mayhill Fowler, a citizen journalist, at a campaign fundraising event that was off-limits to the mainstream press. Obama’s off-the-cuff remarks about the reasons why some working-class voters might feel embittered about politics, dutifully relayed by Fowler in a blog, sparked news headlines around the world. This was a crisis of an unusual sort for the Obama campaign to address, one that helped to reveal the changing nature of election campaigns in the age of the Internet.

Section Three: Future Challenges

Reese and Dai, in Chapter 18, explore the role of citizen journalists acting as media critics-both against domestic and international media- arguing that the Chinese blogosphere is increasingly featuring posts and comments that in their view are a form of public deliberation. Nationalism, they argue, suits the interests of the Chinese government, which has given citizens free range in criticizing the Western media-attacking CNN for discrepancies in its coverage of the Tibet riots and negative framing of the Olympic Torch relay, for instance. Conversely, they demonstrate how citizen reporters also critique domestic professional journalistic principles, forcing action on issues that would otherwise have been ignored. In the context of globalization, they contend, these developments point to new ways of understanding social change.
Mainstream media are increasingly appropriating citizen journalism content-broadly encapsulated under the umbrella of “user-generated content” (UGC)-in part to avoid perceptually undermining traditional journalism’s occupational values. Singer and Ashman (Chapter 19) pick up on this tension from the perspective of “journalists at Britain’s Guardian newspaper and its internationally popular website,” exploring how journalism practice is changing as it is forced to accommodate content from-and interaction with-its audience. Journalists’ responses are positioned in relation to traditional occupational values of authenticity, autonomy, and accountability. While “user-generated content” and audience interaction are cautiously embraced, journalists remain wary of the challenges inherent in negotiating new relationships with citizen contributors.
Few technological innovations invite forms of use as distinct from traditional journalistic practice as wikis. Bradshaw examines the emergence of wiki-based citizen journalism in Chapter 20, evaluates its strengths and weaknesses, and proposes a taxonomy of its different forms. Wikis are “blogs 2.0,” he argues, since their technology forces a collaborative practice that transcends the linear communications flow of blogs and discussion forums. Wikis offer a single place for the distributed discussion of blogs to take place, where the community deliberates to reach (ongoing) consensus by making changes to the original text.
The book draws to a close with Deuze’s (Chapter 21) assessment of the future of citizen journalism from three different perspectives: industry, audience, and convergence culture. The future of citizen journalism, he argues, “is about creating brand communities around the news”-often where communities of interest already exist, which explains the success of “hyperlocal” initiatives. Deuze also calls into question the promise and practice of online audience interaction, suggesting that “none of these forms of distributed conversation have real, permanent, or stable political power.” Beyond these critical perspectives, he settles on a more positive note by exploring how convergence culture may enable “a future citizen journalism where professional reporters and engaged citizens indeed co-create a public sphere within their communities of reference.”