Citizen journalism has a bright future

By Philip Lee on July 12, 2013

Today’s technology seems to allow anyone who has access to a network and who can afford it to report what is going on in their own backyard or public square.

The most basic phone has a camera and it is simple to post images, video and text to social media sites. As a result, citizen journalists – ordinary people observing events in their local context – are everywhere.

Sources that are an alternative to professional media outlets (meaning those whose staff are paid to conform to professional standards of ethical journalism) have considerable power to transform media content. Witness the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Egypt, or the catastrophic train wreck in Canada’s Lac-Mégantic, Quebec or the miners’ and teachers’ protests in La Paz, Bolivia. Viewers send photos to television stations to enliven weather reports and readers comment on stories published in online newspapers.


With financial cutbacks, professional journalists cannot be everywhere all the time and often arrive after news event have actually happened. In any case, local people who know the social and cultural context and speak the language are often better placed to assess what is going on. Citizen journalists can be the sole source of first-hand information, much of which then feeds into the traditional media, with TV news and national newspapers running stories – sometimes with a disclaimer – based on reports by citizen journalists.


Citizen journalism is often referred to as “user-generated content” (UGC), a term criticised for vaguely referring to any kind of unsourced or unauthenticated information that finds its way into mainstream media content. Nevertheless, in 2007 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its report “Participative web: user-generated content” did identify certain characteristics of UGC.

*        UGC should be published online in some context “be it on a publicly accessible website or on a page on a social networking site only accessible to a select group of people (i.e. fellow university students). This is a useful way to exclude email, bilateral instant messages and the like.”

*        UGC should involve a certain amount of effort that was put into creating the work or adapting existing works to construct a new one; i.e. users must add their own value to the work. The creative effort behind UGC often also has a collaborative element to it, as is the case with websites which users can edit collaboratively.

*        UGC should generally be devised outside of professional routines and practices. It often does not have an institutional or a commercial market context. Motivating factors include: connecting with peers, achieving a certain level of fame, notoriety, or prestige, and the desire to express oneself. Click here for source document.

Editorial responsibility and liability

So far, so good. Yet important questions of editorial responsibility and liability come into play and they are not so easy to resolve. They include defamation, hate speech, privacy, data protection and image rights, and copyright. In the context of news production, a range of values and issues must be added: objectivity, impartiality, truthfulness, transparency, reliability, ethical standards and protection of sources.

Professional journalists are, of course, trained to cover both sides of a story and to avoid bias in what they are communicating. Citizen journalists do not ordinarily have this training and may well have an axe to grind – potentially making their reports unreliable, whether consciously or not.

Professional journalists are also trained to understand libel law and what can and cannot be said or published. In today’s 24/7 news cycles, rumours risk becoming front page news in seconds via unsubstantiated user-generated content such as blogs and tweets.

Then there is the thorny issue of copyright. Lots of news sites now actively encourage the uploading of pictures, video and text to give added perspective to news and features. In the United Kingdom, Guardianwitness offers the chance to contribute to live news and other content through a smartphone app. Content is vetted before making it onto the site, but The Guardian gets an unconditional, worldwide licence to use it as it sees fit.

Media ownership and control is all about power. This is why dictatorships and governments intent on launching attacks on so-called “rogue nations” have always tried to censor media content and rein in press freedom. Citizen journalism has become a vital part of the democratisation of reporting, even while practical and ethical questions remain to be addressed.

Training for citizen journalists

Internews is an international non-profit organization whose mission is to empower local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need, the ability to connect and the means to make their voices heard. It recently held a series of four intensive workshops on Internet policy and digital safety. The two-day workshops served some 100 journalists, bloggers, netizens and members of civil society groups in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia.

Training began 23-24 February 2013 in Cairo, Egypt, where it was primarily geared towards journalists. There followed trainings in Ramallah, Palestine 19-20 May and in Amman, Jordan, 26-27 May. Participants in these two workshops had more diverse backgrounds and included journalists, students, and members of civil society organizations.

The final training in Tunis, Tunisia, 12-13 June 2013 was hosted by the ESPRIT technical college and attended by about ten students and bloggers. This training was scheduled just before the Freedom Online conference in Tunis, a two-day international forum on freedom of expression on the Internet where Internews representatives also spoke and led a workshop.

The trainings in the four countries provided some history and background on Internet governance, as well as concrete strategies for how to engage in the process of influencing policy. They also addressed the ways that governments attempt to balance security needs with the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and privacy. The training also covered efforts around the world to increase government transparency and access to information.

Finally, participants learned best practices for protecting their own digital safety, including how to assess their threat model and level of risk, and what tools they might use to improve their safety online. Source document is here.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, “Supporting Citizen Journalism in Egypt” is a new project co-sponsored by the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNRF) in Cairo in cooperation with Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and the support of the Rights & Democracy organization of Canada.

This project aims at strengthening citizen journalism by training bloggers (and those who aspire to become bloggers) and providing them with important and state of the art information. It also intends to establish and strengthen cooperation between journalists working in the traditional media and bloggers.

A manual on blogging called “Express Yourself and Be Free” will be produced. It will provide Egyptian citizens with a practical guide on how to blog effectively, creatively and safely. The manual will be authored by Egypt’s most prominent bloggers and experts in the field. Source document is here.

The right to blog

Recently, the international human rights organisation Article 19 published a set of recommendations to state actors and policy makers about what they should do to promote and protect the rights of bloggers domestically and internationally. It also gives practical advice to bloggers about their rights and explains how - and in what situations - they can invoke some of the privileges and defences that traditional journalists have found vital to the integrity of their work.

“The Right to Blog” argues that it is no longer appropriate to define journalism and journalists by reference to some recognised body of training, or affiliation with a news entity or professional body. On the contrary, ARTICLE 19 believes that the definition of journalism should be functional, i.e. journalism is an activity that can be exercised by anyone. Accordingly, it argues that international human rights law must protect bloggers just as it protects journalists. The policy paper therefore addresses the key areas that bloggers are likely to face, that is: licensing, real-name registration (vs. anonymity), accreditation, the protection of sources, protection from violence, legal liability and ethical responsibility and suggests ways for them to be addressed. Source document is here.

Citizen journalism and user-generated content have a bright future. They help affirm the centrality of communication – including mass, community and social media – to strengthening human dignity and to promoting democratic values. In particular, they restore voice and visibility to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in a spirit of solidarity and social justice.


July 12, 2013

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