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On “Citizen Journalism”

July 6th, 2008 · 2 Comments

The Personal Democracy Forum provided plenty of food for thought to masticate, but one bit that’s stuck in my craw is the way the phrase “citizen journalism,” which should denote an important concept, seems to be turning into a marketing buzzword for mediocre writers.

Back in high school, I was friendly with an English teacher who was also, at the time, the adviser for our student newspaper. From time to time, he would also write pieces for publications like The Bergen Record—even, occasionally, The New York Times, mostly on matters related to education. This did not, as far as anyone was concerned, make him a “citizen journalist,” any more than a grad student picking up some extra pocket money by tutoring becomes a “citizen teacher.” (Am I overly sensitive if I detect something slightly insulting in that construction, by the by? Aren’t the paid scribes citizens too?)  It made him a teacher who did a little journalism on the side.

So what distinguishes my old adviser—or any other freelancer—from someone like Mayhill Fowler? As far as I can tell, nothing more than a generous helping of self-serving branding. That is, on this definition, a “citizen journalist” is just a freelancer who’s exempt from ordinary standards of writing ability and, apparently, able to affect a “voice-of-the-common-man” pose without provoking rolled eyes. This is a marketing gimmick we can do without.

That’s not to say the concept of the “citizen journalist” is without utility: The hype about new media’s transformative effect on journalism is, in one sense, justified. Research tasks that would have choked even a media leviathan’s capabilities can now, thanks to crowdsourcing, be tackled in a few hours by swarms of amateurs each contributing a few minutes of spare time. Anyone with a laptop or cell phone who happens to find themselves in proximity to a news event can snap a photo, take video, record an interview, or write up a quick description, and make it available to an unlimited audience, instantly. That is the promise of citizen journalism, and it is both real and revolutionary. Which is precisely why it seems a shame to let the phrase be coopted by any hack columnist who cares to self apply it.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 southpaw // Jul 7, 2008 at 10:48 am

    The designation did seem to give Ms. Fowler license to record and write about the substance of explicitly off-the-record events–not something most “journalists” could get away with–so the term isn’t entirely valueless.

  • 2 lemmy caution // Jul 7, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    I don’t think you get to call yourself a hack unless you get paid.

    “Citizen Journalist” is a clunky phrase.

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