Thinking about Citizen Journalism

In 2008, I attended a New England News Forum where there was a long discussion about ‘Citizen Journalism’. After the event, I wrote a blog entry, I am not a Citizen Journalist. Today, I was on a conference call helping plan a ‘Citizen Journalism’ preconference to a national media conference and I received an email from an honor student majoring in English with a minor in journalism who had written to ask my thoughts about citizen journalism. It seems like a good chance to think a little bit more about Citizen Journalism.

The student asked several interesting questions which I thought it might be useful to put into a blog post. She asked, “What do you deem citizen journalism? Why do you think others view it as an insult?”

Let me start off by presenting what I see as idealistic and as cynical views of citizen journalism.

Ideally, every citizen of our great country should have access to what is happening in our government. They should be able to take this information and synthesize ideas about what our government can do better to meet the needs of its people. They should be able to write and distribute these ideas in an open discussion that we can all learn from. Not only should they be able to do this, but they should feel a civic compunction to do so. This is the ideal of citizen journalism I would like to see more of and aspire to.

On the other hand, there are plenty of bloggers that take third hand information combined with talking points crafted by one advocacy organization or another to produce poorly written and poorly thought out screeds about something politicians are doing wrong.

Professional journalists with degrees from great journalism schools, who are struggling to get by in these days of contraction of the news industry cynically point to such bloggers to illustrate why citizen journalism is bad and why you need paid journalists with good journalism degrees. As much as I deplore such writing as the anti-thesis of what good citizen journalism should be, I must admit that I’ve probably produced some ill-written nasty screeds myself.

To channel Joni Mitchell briefly, it’s citizen journalism’s illusions I recall. I am careful about how I use the phrase citizen journalism. If I am speaking with someone that seeks with me increasingly informed participation in our civic institutions, then I am glad to call myself a citizen journalist or at least admit to aspiring to be one. If I’m speaking with a grumpy old reporter who has recently been laid off, or is worrying about such a layoff, then I usually just call myself of blogger. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story that requires a bit of digging, I might even call myself an independent investigative reporter.

Ultimately, however, the phrase ‘Citizen Journalism’ isn’t what matters. What matters is more people getting better access to more information about events that shape their lives. We can all work together to make this happen, or we can sit at conferences arguing about various phrases. Personally, I’m more interested in the former.

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