Defining “citizen journalism”

I’m not a big fan of the term “citizen journalism”. As I’ve said, adopting the label “journalist” will inevitably annoy those who think they are the “real journalists”. And we’re all citizens anyway, even curmudgeonly journalists.

But I haven’t though of anything better. Neither has anyone else yet, so we’re stuck with it. We might as well agree on what it means.

As usual, Wikipedia provides some good background. But Jay Rosen recently repeated his Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism:

It’s mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the “so-called” from in front?

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

There are other definitions, but they will have to be discussed in the comments.

I used quote-marks in my headline and first paragraph because I believe that’s how you denote the item of language you’re discussing. But from now on, I’ll use the term “citizen journalism” without quotes — except just then, because I was denoting again.

Does this definition work for you? Got a better name for it?

18 Replies to “Defining “citizen journalism””

  1. I like it, but the “inform one another” part is a bit rubbery. Inform one another of what, exactly? I could hypothetically use a blog of mine to inform my network about my approaching wedding in November, but you wouldn’t call that “journalism”. Which brings us back to defining (or redefining) what “journalism” actually means these days. Given, as you’ve said in recent weeks, that the emergence of the internet marks the biggest media revolution in several hundred years — then it makes sense that the traditional delineation between The News and chit-chat between friends has become well and truly fluxed up.

    You used to need access to a printing press to reach a wider audience than word of mouth could. That meant money, so the people with the money got to decide what was written, how it was written, and by whom — and if you weren’t writing a book or an ad, you’d be writing journalism. But no more.

    So two variables emerge here:

    1. Is journalism defined by what you’re writing about (politics, business, sport, how to pay less for expensive wine and designer sunglasses)? Or,
    2. Is it defined by the form and style in which you’re writing it (impartial reporting, opinion, essay)?

    Because with all of the exceptions and overlap that would come with any way you tried to carve it, neither seems really adequate today. And maybe that’s why traditional journalists get their arse in a knot over bloggers — to modernise and broaden the definition of “journalism” to include them invites too much confusion and is best left in the too hard basket.

    Just a thought.

  2. ‘Blogger’.

    If you stick with the term long enough and focus more on doing the writing, people will stop associating bloggers with petty stuff (like what to call their writing so the mean journalists let them play in the sandbox too).

    As an analogy, socialism’s still socialism even if you call it a “mixed economy”.

    [Stilgherrian notes: I wouldn’t usually publish an anonymous comment, but hey, it makes a good point. Perhaps worry less about what journalists think, full stop. 😉 That curmudgeon thing…]

  3. @Anon: What you say is good. But still, words have associations and they help us think. Things should be Named with care…

    @Stephen Stockwell: That fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, begins its article on journalism:

    Journalism is a style of writing or communicating, formally employed by publications and broadcasters, for the benefit of a particular community of people. The writer or journalist is expected to take the help of facts in describing events, ideas, or issues that are relevant to the public. Journalists (also known as news analysts, reporters, and correspondents) gather information, and broadcast it so we remain informed about local, state, national, and international events. They can also present their points of view on current issues and report on the actions of the government, public officials, corporate executives, interest groups, media houses, and those who hold social power or authority. Journalism is described as The Fourth Estate.

    So, both content and style.

    When I look at that definition, I can’t help but think “the public” is really many, many publics. Mass-produced journalism had to feed the lowest common denominator. Journalist produced by a myriad of citizen journalists can serve a myriad of publics. Game change!

  4. Recreational journalism?

    Given the wiki definition of journalism and the equivalent good/bad quality, trustworthy/untrustworthy source continua in all kinds of media, the difference is the money, surely?

    OK, so it’s not actually recreation for a lot of bloggers, but I like the implied flip of the bird at status conscious paid journalists.

  5. When a non IT/media industry person asks me what I do I say “independent web journalist” and they usually “say wow that’s great”.

    To people in the IT/media industry I say “Professional Blogger” — and they say wow that’s great

    If people still don’t understand, I say imagine Fairfax Digital but scaled down a heck of a lot and run by 1 person who does all the work: writing, invoicing, selling ad space etc.

    I don’t think one label works across the whole population

  6. @Lyn: No, I don’t think the difference is the money at all, though the money thing does conflate the two meanings of “professional”, doing it for money or doing it to “professional standards”. It’s about a different approach — where the creators and the audience are the same set of people.

    “Recreational” implies it’s for the fun of it, whereas I think citizen journalism reflects the core human need to communicate and some people take it very seriously indeed.

    “Recreational journalism” also sounds like a good puff of what the junior graphic artist keep stashed at the back of his desk drawer…

    Neerav Bhatt: You’re right, to use one word “blog” to describe The Huffington Post, your own work, mine and a random cat-fancier from Arkansas isn’t helpful.

  7. The problem is that even columnists in newspapers aren’t necessarily journalists. Opinion pieces aren’t journalism.

    Webster dictionary says journalism is “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation”

    Rather than giving a name and status to blogging, lets focus on removing the undeserved “journalism” tag from 90% for the shite that gets pumped out by media organisations.

  8. @jason: Webster’s isn’t my favourite dictionary, but yes you’re right. Indeed, “real journalists” look down upon newspaper columnists as a distinctly lesser breed. Many of them re doing precisely the random brain-dump which bloggers are accused of.

    I was once told that answering the who, what, where, when and how questions were news, and answering “Why?” was current affairs. Giving any personal opinion took it outside the realm of both. But then that’s a definition of the particular craft of “real journalism”, and perhaps the whole printed-word and exclusivity of having a voice in The Press meant that a culture of neutrality was encouraged.

    Jay Rosen recently asked, “When people talk about re-inventing journalism they almost never talk about re-drawing its ideology. Why?”

    @Cindy: Yes, blogging is, or at least can be, an example of citizen journalism. The whole point is we’re trying to drop the word “blogging” because of the negative connotations (for some).

  9. I was just reading the comment that “Why” was current affairs, but am confused about that because I read lots of articles that explain the “Why” but really are reports about history, such as the United States Civil War history.

    And as for the comment about putting in your blog information about your wedding is not “news” it would be if you were a public figure! Even though you are not a public figures, it is at least “Local news” to your friends and family!

  10. @Art: So does that mean the definition of “news” follows the size of the subject’s public profile?

  11. @Art: Well, not everything in a “newspaper” is “news”. A lot of other material gets packaged in there. And sometimes you need to provide background information (like the Civil War history) so the news story makes sense.

    @Stephen Stockwell: Well how about this? A friend comes up and says, “Hey Stephen, have you heard the news? Graham is getting married!” That is news to you because Graham’s a friend and you hadn’t heard it before.

    I’m now starting to think that this idea of news only being about “important people” happened when news started to be transmitted by big, industrial-scale organisations. The subject of the news had to be of relevance to to sufficient people to justify the deployment of industrial-scale newsmaking.

    So, there’s a strike by coal miners in South Africa. It’s big — but only because it affects a lot of people in South Africa or those with shares in the mining company. Does it affect me? No. So really, it’s not news to me. I’d much rather know about the truck crash blocking the end of my street — no-one hurt, no great damage either, but that really will screw up my day.

  12. Well how about that then? Channel 9 is about to axe a couple of news programs, Nightline and Sunday. The former isn’t worth getting worked up about, but the latter’s demise leaves a void! In the context of this blog’s recent discussion, I wonder if some good blogger out there might fill the gap. Do blogs even have a real and serious role to play in truly in-depth political analysis?

    If that blogger exists out there today, show him to me! SHOW HIM TO ME!!

    Fact is, a lot of what’s written out there by these wanna-be political commentator blogs are just plain dumb. In fact, often they say nothing at all. And when they’ve got nothing to say, they’ll put up a dumb post like “Open Thread”. And guess what? That one post gets several hundred comments! WTF is that?

    As far as I’m concerned, that just kinda proves how dumb people have become thanks to the internet. Here’s something worth reading:

  13. @skeptical: It’s been said elsewhere on these pages already, but if you want fully boned-up, robust, referenced and detailed political analysis from outside traditional media, then you really can’t go past Possum Comitatus and Mumble.

  14. The mainstream media were never good. Skeptical may whinge, but the bad old days are on their way out.

    As for terminology, I think the word “journalist” is an insult. Public confidence in journalism as a profession was hovering around the 13% mark the last time I looked. Bloggers are not “journalists”. They’re something vastly better than that.

  15. @skeptical: I never really watched Nightline, but Sunday has been starving to death for years and I’m glad someone’s finally put the gun to its head. When Kerry Packer, a man who actually understood media, was at Channel 9’s helm he started Sunday knowing it’d never be profitable. His instructions to the first producer? “Make me proud.”

    Now that Channel 9 is run by beancounters, they’re cutting costs and removing everything which made it a great TV network. It’s not something to be proud of. It’s embarrassing. The only time I watch Channel 9 now is when it’s on the big screen in a pub.


    To ask whether “a good blogger”, singular, can replace a 2-hour flagship current affairs program is the daftest question I’ve seen in a very long time. Of course they can’t, no more than a solo folk singer can replace Opera Australia. They’re different things.

    To ask whether “blogs even have a real and serious role to play in truly in-depth political analysis” is to ignore the obvious fact that the answer is already yes. Ask Dan Rather about the Killian documents.

    To whinge that “a lot of what’s written out there by these wanna-be political commentator blogs are just plain dumb” is to ignore two obvious facts: (1) a lot of what’s written anywhere is dumb, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire medium; and (2) there is good material out there, but every time someone points it out to you, you skip over that and ask again. Troll.

    You’re becoming tedious, skeptical. You’re doing exactly what caused me to write my original rant: comparing the idealised best of journalism (which rarely exists) with your own pre-conceived idea of blogging, based on the worst that medium has to offer. Quite frankly, that only shows your ignorance of what’s actually happening around you.

    Jeff Jarvis is right. If you’re still back there in the past, trying to push those old arguments, then you’re part of the problem. It’s time to move on. As one of Jarvis’ commenters said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

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