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When two bombs detonated at the Boston Marathon on an unsuspecting crowd Monday afternoon, Twitter was one of the first media platforms to break the news. Vine also played a high-profile role and proved its viability as a news platform. A six-second Vine video of the blast on loop was one of the first pieces of video coverage online. As confused conversation and panicked speculation seized the Twitterverse, many looked to traditional news outlets for more information.

Most news outlets didn’t post coverage for a full 15-30 minutes after the news broke on Twitter, most likely because they were hard at work formulating more in-depth stories. Several of my friends active on social media channels became frustrated because of the lack of confirmed reports. Due to Twitter’s immediacy, intimacy and ability to drive conversation, citizen journalism played a huge role in the coverage of this tragic event.

With the rise of the Internet and social networking, the average citizen was empowered with the ability to access information in real time, connect to others with similar interests and post to a highly public space. This ease of communication greatly affected the development of a new media system, leading to citizens acting as “watchdogs” in place of journalists.

Citizen journalism in social media has lead to revolutionary events such as the Arab Spring uprising in 2010. With the help of social media, a wave of protests, demonstrations and civil uprisings broke out across the Arab world. The activists utilized a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” to plan and organize peaceful protests. This form of cyber-activism helped create a dialogue between online communities that spread to and mobilized physical ones.

It’s important to note that while social media played an important role in the uprising, other essential predecessors provided the backdrop that led to increased civil unrest and the motivation to demand change. Khamis stressed that although technology provides new capacities for citizens, it is not the driving force behind political change.

Social media has also been utilized in authoritarian, non-democratic societies. Xin explored the citizen journalism phenomenon in China, where mainstream media is still under tight ideological control. Xin argues that citizen journalism is advantageous over mainstream journalism because it greatly enhances public participation. In the first two case studies, Xin demonstrates the ways in which citizen journalism complements mainstream media by positioning itself as an alternative news source for time-sensitive news. These “watchdog” journalists helped publicize social injustices but would not have been as influential if they hadn’t drawn government attention or the attention of a mainstream media source.

In the third case, citizen journalism failed to break through China’s media censorship due to the Olympics. Tainted infant milk was being sold that poisoned hundred of babies in China and even resulted in some deaths. There was a strict order not to publish anything that would be detrimental to public opinion during the Olympics. Therefore, citizen journalist voices were not able to reach the audience that required it the most and social injustices were unable to be broadcasted. Similar to Khamis’ conclusion, Xin deducts that citizen journalism alone is unlikely to be the driving force behind social progress in China, even though it still performs a valuable function as new media.

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To conclude, citizen journalism in social media is a great complement to mainstream media and allows ordinary people to quickly communicate and spread breaking news to the masses. Nonetheless, there are many limitations to citizen journalism. One of the main criticisms is that because anyone can be a reporter, citizen journalism can oftentimes become a torrent of misinformation. The tweets discussing the aftermath of the Boston Marathon explosions included unsupported claims that linked bomb victims to survivors of the Newton Massacre, speculations that Muslim terrorists were involved somehow and even inaccurate information about the number of casualties from the explosion.

It is evident that citizen journalism needs a major platform such as a mainstream news agency or governmental attention to gain momentum and reach large audiences. On its own, citizen journalism is unable to function as an effective change agent.

Sources

Khamis S, Vaughn K. (2011) ‘We Are All Khaled Said’: The potentials and limitations of cyberactivism in triggering public mobilization and promoting political change, Journal Of Arab & Muslim Media Research [serial online].4(2&3):145-163. Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 17, 2013.

Xin, X. (2010). The Impact of “Citizen Journalism” on Chinese Media and Society. Journalism Practice, 4(3), 333-354. doi: 10.1080/17512781003642931

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