Some thoughts on citizen journalism

A Phd researcher recently contacted me to ask some questions about citizen journalism (after the project I did at BBC News Online and my general blogging about citizen journalism. Now that I've had some time to think and reflect on those activities, I was happy to try and give her some answers. After having spent an hour writing my reply, I thought it'd be worthwhile publishing it here.

Give me your definition of citizen journalism.

Definitions are, by their nature, self-defeating and instantly inaccurate. However, if I were to attempt a definition, it would go something like this:

"People who aren't professional journalists engaging in the activity of journalism by reporting the news in the world around them."

The key, for me, is that it's not about people wanting to be a journalist, but about people playing a part in the activity of journalism (reporting and analysing the news), whether opportunistically (as an eyewitness, or happening to be in or near a news situation), or more regularly, within a social network such as blogs, wikis, and so on.

Talk to me a bit about your blog, your experiment in citizen journalism. When did you started it, what is its content, how does it work?

I'm interested in the news, and in the role that citizen journalism might have in changing the way that we consume news and in changing the way that news happens. I write regularly on my personal blog, and whilst I have, occasionally, commented on various news stories, I've never had the time or proximity to report or analyse the news in a timely fashion.

I've followed the way that Wikipedia has reacted to some of the big 'news events' (London bombings, and so on) - playing the role of a central place where information is gathered, compared, analysed and reported. This is, in some ways, un-encyclopaedic, but represents the speed at which events can be documented as they happen.

Recognising that Wikipedia is not the place for true reporting of news stories, especially original reporting, Wikinews is a project that's been set up as a sort of spinoff from Wikipedia, a site using the same anyone-can-contribute-and-edit philosophy, but with time-sensitive, news-worthy information. A key difference is that if a story develops over the course of a few weeks or months, with information changing over that timescale, old news stories are not update to reflect the new information, but are instead archived as a record of the events as they happened. This makes the site more ephemeral in some ways, but also a temporal resource that connects more closely with news narratives.

The key problem that Wikipedia faces is that, unlike Wikipedia, where it doesn't matter hugely if it takes five years to build up a comprehensive entry on a historical figure, Wikinews needs to react fast in order to be relevant. To do this requires either a fairly large or fairly dedicated community. One of the aims of my experiment was to see whether, as a single individual dedicating a full week to the project, I could help raise the value of the site. A secondary aim was to learn more for myself about how news is gathered and reported, and the role which citizen journalism can play.

The practical outcome of my experiment was that I spent a week understanding and reporting the news, based at the BBC News Online offices, publishing to my own website (as a record), the BBC News Online website, and to Wikinews.

Why did you decide to get involved with citizen journalism?

Partly because I think, in some ways, that news is too important to be left to just professional journalists. Whilst they play a valuable role, which could never be replaced by people who don't dedicate their lives to it, it should be the role of everyone to try to understand and report the world around them. Not only does this give rise to the possibility that, with a larger pool of people, new news, facts and analysis will emerge (as has already happened), but also that news will spread through existing, social-based trust networks (friends and friends of friends) as well as existing 'authoritative' (and thus, at least in some cases, trusted) news institutions.

Do you perceive yourself as a journalist?

No. I think I can practise journalism, on occasion, to varying degrees of success. As can everyone else. The term journalist is an identity statement, and probably best refers to those who practise in journalism full-time, probably professionally, and probably to the exclusion of other jobs. (In the same way that you might to a bit of DIY-carpentry now and again, but wouldn't identify yourself as a carpenter).

Do you follow certain rules of journalistic deontology and ethics while you search, write, edit your news items?

I don't even know what this means.

What benefits, according to you, does or will citizen journalism bring to traditional journalism?

I think it will help to keep traditional journalism honest - catching out those who lie, mislead or make mistakes. It will give rise to new stories which bubble-up through citizen-journalism networks. Here, traditional media is in danger of being slow on the uptake, missing stories and reporting them too slowly and shallowly, but done right, traditional media can give these stories new audiences, and act as a trusted hub who can add value by supplying extra reporting resources and institutional muscle (taking a citizen-reported story, for example, and demanding answers from high-level people).

Describe me your experience with BBC.

As described above, and my sum-up piece for the BBC, I focused most of my attention on the kinds of reporting that Wikinews was doing - and helped to write and edit stories for that website, using a combination of primary and secondary sources. In addition, I did some interviews, talked to people within the BBC, and did some general research on citizen journalism practises.

One of the things that surprised me perhaps more than it should have was the kind of environment that the BBC News Online office is. Whilst the website news is all produced there, most of the content was generated by newsgathering teams, correspondents, newswires and freelancers. This is, of course, because news doesn't happen in an office, but out in the world, where people are. This limits the role of journalists writing stories all day to the use of secondary sources (other agencies, reporters and so on) and primary sources that happen to originate on the web (which, for press-release driven stories, or internet phenomena, is quite a few). One interesting observation from this is how little source-reporting actually gets published. With the internet being all about the link, and citizen journalism being partly about transparency, being able to point to your source documents, material, notes and so on, is a powerful practice that is common in citizen journalism networks but largely absent from mainstream media outlets.

How does BBC perceive citizen journalism? Are they willing to adopt such practices?

I don't think I can answer for the BBC, but I don't think their aim is to adopt such practices themselves, but to better understand citizen journalism (hence their collaboration with me), and to work with facets of citizen journalism in order to better their own offering. They are, for example, already hugely successful in gathering user-generated photos, videos and reporting from major news events, and to some extent in picking up on citizen-originated stories.

How do you predict the future of citizen journalism?

I think, with more people connected to online networks (which enable the rapid spread of information), more people equipped with pervasive documenting tools (cameraphones, digital cameras, etc), and more people concerned with the news (due to the general intensifying of politics and conflict), citizen journalism as an activity will grow and grow. I don't think this will happen as a revolution, but as a natural progression - we will come to expect that news which doesn't happen behind closed doors should be well documented, reported and analysed by the wider community of journalists and non-journalists alike.