What is Citizen Journalism? What is the Purpose of It?

This is a guide covering everything you need to know about citizen journalism.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

What is Citizen Journalism?

Citizen journalism is a kind of journalism or reporting carried out by common citizens. It is known by various names, including grass-roots journalism, participatory journalism, or even less commonly vigilante journalism.

The reporter of the story in citizen journalism is almost always an amateur who happened to have been around the scene of the incident.

We live in an age where information is literally at our fingertips, but how often have you heard your more skeptical friends tell you not to believe in everything you hear on the media.

Quite often, right?

The reason that there is a lack of trust between the public and big media networks is corporate and government interests versus the public interest.

It is no coincidence that six corporations in America own 90% of the media.

In such an environment where channels of information are controlled by corporate and government interests, citizen journalism is not only a breath of fresh air but also an opportunity for citizens to wrest the control of media back from elitist interests.

Citizen journalists are not affiliated with any organization like reporters from traditional media.

Citizen journalism has been made possible by the widespread use of social media platforms as news sources like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram et cetera.

“It is an alternative and activist form of news gathering and reporting that functions outside mainstream media institutions, often as a response to shortcomings in the professional journalistic field” – Leah A Lievrouw

In fact, due to the undeniably important role played by citizen journalists in today’s media landscape, big media houses encourage citizen journalists to submit their works to them in return for money.

Citizen journalism has devolved the media’s power from a few large media corporations to the grassroots.

The result has been a democratization of media information channels and sources to the level that large corporations have to report on stories that are in the public’s interest, or else they stand to lose viewership because the public has more options now.

public democritization

What is the Work of a Citizen Journalist?

A citizen journalist is not bound by editorial guidelines. This means more room for pursuing stories of interest that are not covered by the traditional media channels.

In fact, the main reason for the rise of citizen journalism is that traditional media has boxed itself into a repetitive pattern of reporting that avoids getting into conflict with vested interests.

So, what does a citizen journalist do? How do they work as journalists when they aren’t qualified enough to work in traditional media?

The advent of ‘new journalism’ (journalism via the Internet) has made the dissemination and distribution of news easier.

Anyone, now, can take out their phone and record unfolding events into their smartphone.

Also, you no longer need to be a staff writer with big newspapers to get your voice heard. In about 280 characters you can send out a tweet and let the world hear your opinion.

Typically, citizen journalists work in two ways:

  1. Solo citizen journalism
  2. Contributing to a media organization as a citizen journalist.

1. Solo Citizen Journalist

When you are working as a standalone citizen journalist, you are free to choose your own story, be free from any sort of editorial checks, and also immune to accountability in most cases.

Citizen journalists working on their own record events into their smartphones be it protests, extreme weather events, or behavioral misconduct from a public official.

citizen journalist

Not only that, citizen journalists also write on social media platforms and run their own blogs about the topics they feel passionate about.

2. Citizen Journalist Working With Media Organization

On the other hand, citizen journalists working with media organizations are not as independent as the ones working solo, but they are not as bound by editorial policies as the in-house reporters and journalists.

Citizen journalists who work with media organizations perform in a contributory capacity.

Usually, media organizations will call on citizens to send them videos or pictures from live events where the news team’s reporters either don’t have access or there is a certain level of threat to the lives of the journalists.

They also perform crowdsourcing functions, which means that they volunteer to do certain tasks, i.e. sifting large amounts of data, to help out the professional journalists.

Why is Citizen Journalism Important?

The Internet has made information distribution as easy as clicking a button.

This means that information does not only reach us quicker, but it has also eliminated the need for gatekeepers (think of them as filters).

1. Gatekeeping

Due to the presence of gatekeepers and the inability of traditional journalists to pursue certain stories, citizen journalism has increased in importance.

A citizen journalist will post a story to a social media website or their own blog without the fear of recriminations.

2. Immediacy

Apart from gatekeeping, the traditional media channels take their time to get and verify stories.

This means an unnecessary delay in getting information to the public.

Although verifying facts is a good journalistic practice that needs to be upheld at all times, there are certain scenarios that require a certain level of immediacy.

For example, a news story about a bombing broken by a citizen journalist will give an estimate of the deaths and destruction.

3. Empowers people

Further, citizen journalism is a great tool for the masses to wrest back control of the media from vested interests that time and again fail to highlight issues of public interest and censor genuine public voices.

It is also participatory in nature which means that instead of being passive observers, the audience now has the tools (technology and applications) to record, write, or highlight issues that are of their interests and submit them freely to platforms (social media) where they are distributed worldwide with no gatekeepers and middlemen.

“…when major events occur, the public can offer us as much new information as we are able to broadcast to them. From now on, news coverage is a partnership”, said Richard Sambrook, a former executive at the BBC, after the 7/7 bombing in the UK where thousands of people sent messages, photos, and videos of the event directly to the BBC newsroom.

To further explore the importance of citizen journalism, we also recommend this TED Talk by Brian Conley:

Citizen Journalism is Reshaping the World: Brian Conley at TEDxMidAtlantic

What is the History of Citizen Journalism?

Citizen journalism, although facilitated by the advent of the Internet, doesn’t owe its origins to the new medium. It has been around for a longer period than the Internet.

1. JFK Assassination

In 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas while driving through a rally. An amateur filmmaker, Abraham Zapruder, captured the actual moments of the assassination in his camera.

Later, the footage recorded by Abraham Zapruder would be used by the federal agencies as evidence in investigating the assassination.

The footage was shot by an untrained person who had unwittingly captured an era-defining moment.

2. Police Brutality

In 1991, George Holliday would capture the footage of police officers beating a black man with unrestrained excessive force.

The officers involved in the horrible beating were eventually acquitted, but the footage replayed on news channels, shot by an ordinary man, gave other citizens courage to report or even capture stories on their own.

3. South Korea

In the early 2000s, a South Korean established the citizen journalism platform, OhmyNews.

Later, in 2011, it will have had 65,000 contributions made to it by ordinary citizens reporting on stories happening around them.

The website, whose motto “Every Citizen is a Reporter” captures the essence of citizen journalism, reported mainly on stories that evaded the attention of traditional media.

As technology and the Internet penetrated societies globally, platforms for sharing sprung up that were easily accessible to all.

4. Arab Spring

In 2011, a single man in Tunis would torch himself and the whole Middle East would erupt in protests against authoritarian rule.

The protests later came to be known as the Arab Spring, and it was time the people felt empowered recording themselves and their fellow citizens protesting against dictators who had ruled them for decades.

5. Twitter

Nowadays, the use of Twitter is common among both people who want to tell the news and those who want to access the most immediate updates.

The beautiful thing about these social media news platforms is how it has democratized the process of news gathering, dissemination and distribution of news, and how news is accessed.

What are the Advantages of Citizen Journalism?

The following are the advantages of citizen journalism:

1. Keeps the traditional media journalism in check

The primary reason behind the origins of citizen journalism is the inability or refusal of the traditional media channels to pursue stories of public interest.

With the importance of citizen journalism now firmly cemented due to the technological advances of the past decade, the traditional media can no longer remain complacent in doing lazy work.

2. People participation

Through citizen journalism, the people have taken back the means of spreading their side of the story.

The people are no longer passive observers in the political and economic games of the elite.

They have established themselves as participants and newsmakers.

3. Democratization of media

The traditional media is consolidated around six big media corporations. It is hard to believe that these businesses would go against their own interests and report on stories that would put them in a bad light.

Citizen journalism’s advantage is that it has empowered citizens to pursue their own stories even if the traditional media channels never run the stories on their own platforms.

They can now be shared on online platforms that are truly global.

What are the Disadvantages of Citizen Journalism?

Here are the two biggest disadvantages of citizen journalism:

1. No regulation

Citizen journalism, as it is practiced online, has no regulations. This has also caused problems in verifying the facts of particular news.

There is little to no accountability over the Internet. I could be lying about the facts in this whole article and you wouldn’t know it.

2. No professional training

The people doing citizen journalism rarely know about the ethics of how to shoot or report on stories.

Today, anyone can be a citizen journalist because everyone has a smartphone in their pocket that could become a potential camera for capturing video.

How to Become a Citizen Journalist (Tips)?

Becoming a citizen journalist is extremely easy these days. All you’ll need to become a successful citizen journalist is a smartphone or a camera, a blog, a YouTube channel, a podcast, and social media handles.

Here are a few steps you can take now toward becoming a citizen journalist:

  • Set up a blog or a website and start writing about the things that interest you
  • Learn about the events happening around you and go to them with a camera and mic recorder.
  • Be resourceful and produce your own content as much as possible. If you manage to capture something out of the ordinary, big media houses will be after you for rights to that footage
  • Share your thoughts, your opinions, and observations on social media
  • Study up on journalism. A media handbook would be a nice guide to have.

To further explore how to become a citizen journalist, we also recommend this video by ACMi News:

APN | How to Become a Citizen Journalist

Final Remarks

Citizen journalism has emerged as a powerful new form of journalism that has upended traditional media’s monopoly over the news.

It uses the less regulated and extremely fast Internet medium to share stories globally.

Citizen journalists operate where traditional media journalists fail to pursue the story.

Global events have been shaped by the power of citizen journalism like the Arab Spring. The value of citizen journalism will keep on increasing as more diverse channels of information sharing are produced.