When the Boston Police Department and FBI began the search for the bombers of the Boston Marathon on Monday, they immediately turned to a growing and influential force in the country – a population called citizen journalists. These people had captured thousands of unique and discrete images and videos from a variety of perspectives over the course of the marathon, information that would prove valuable in piecing together a comprehensive timeline of events that led up to and directly succeeded the bombings. Even the fertilizer plant explosion in Waco, Texas, was initially published by the news media as a result of a video captured on the cell phone of a citizen nearby. Through the means of personal technology, citizens have been able to integrate themselves into the media landscape, affecting both the public discourse and democratic society. In doing so, how have they had an impact on the way the media presents news and the subsequent discussion within the public sphere?
Many would argue that citizen journalism is a relatively new phenomenon, given the advent of the blogosphere, smart phones, Twitter, Facebook and other web platforms that allow citizens to connect, interact and produce news in their own way. However, it can also be argued that citizen journalism is a concept that has existed in some form for centuries. Like John Owen wrote in the introduction of a chapter on citizen journalism in the compilation International News Reporting: Frontlines and Deadlines, “Just think back to a time when face-to-face communication was the only way to deliver news. Before newspapers and professional journalists, every citizen was a reporter. There was true interactivity.” This interactivity, between citizens and the media, citizens and each other, and citizens and their government, has reemerged alongside the development of new technologies and allowed citizens to once again play a more participatory role in their communities and their country. And increasingly, the media as an institution has integrated citizen journalists into their everyday reporting (for example, CNN’s iReport or NBC News’ Citizen Journalist.)
So, aside from vast new technologies, what factors have led to an increasing role for citizen journalists? Perhaps one key factor is a loss of trust in the news media as authoritative sources on everyday events and the political landscape of the country. As Stuart Allan writes in the Global Media Journal, “Public criticism – if not outright cynicism – about the quality of news provided by mainstream media institutions is widespread.” Allan says that, “many fear that journalism’s commitment to championing the public interest is being replaced with a cheap and tawdry celebration of what interests the public.” In their article, Kaufhold, et al, write that “trust in the media correlates with political trust – and media trust is negatively correlated with political cynicism – so trust in media seems good for democracy.” They also argue that fewer Americans have trust in the mainstream news media than ever before. Thus,
I would argue that citizen journalism allows people to reestablish that trust in the news they receive on an everyday basis that informs their decisions because it both allows citizens to connect with each other without the media middle man to share information, and it allows them to inform and in some cases help to define the news media agenda in terms of what citizens see as important to themselves or their communities. In turn, I would argue that this strengthened connection between people and the media offers citizens a greater incentive to act within the public sphere, especially with regard to politics, because they feel more engaged in the public discussion. As Herbert Gans writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, “American politics has never given citizens much to do other than vote every couple of years. Since most citizens play no other regular role in politics, they have never been particularly interested in political news.” Citizen journalism introduces that necessary participatory role for the American people and makes political news more relevant to the everyday lives of citizens.
While citizens’ roles in producing news content are shifting, we can also witness a shift in the role played by professional journalists. According to Richard Sambrook in an article for Nieman Reports, “the journalist’s role is now to concentrate harder on how, when and where we can add value through our strengths of analysis, context, background and range.” Taking into consideration information contributed by the public, while vetting that information for its editorial value and accuracy, Sambrook argues that “when handled properly, it adds value and improves quality,” of mainstream news from professional sources.
With the advent of the technological advances that now populate our everyday lives, citizens have been reintroduced to a role familiar to them as participants in the public sphere – reporters and communicators of daily news. By acting as citizen journalists, the American people can inform themselves, each other and their government about the information that is necessary or important to them. In doing so, they have reshaped the role played by the traditional news media, offering a more diverse array of perspectives, a greater wealth of information and information sources, and more transparency in the news media. In terms of the political sphere, citizen journalists have the potential to create a more engaged and participatory citizenry, and redefine democracy in our country.