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Thursday, 17 July 2008

The definition of citizen journalism considered (ignore my previous post!)

"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."

This is Jay Rosen's definition of citizen journalism. Obviously this is a pretty good effort and defining something in one sentence is nigh on impossible in any case, but here are some thoughts.

The problem I have is with its non-recognition of the nature of news and journalism. 'Journalism' itself is very difficult to define and is changing radically at the moment, but I think the fact that journalism is about the publication of information to many rather than to just one person needs to be emphasised. ((This may be covered by the definition above if you narrowly define 'press tools' merely as tools of publication but I'm not convinced this was what was meant (surely you must include the mobile phone, handheld camera etc) so I'll carry on...))

Now, how many people you need (10, 100, 1,000, 100,000?) to inform in order for something to be 'published' and become journalism is an interesting question. But what I would say is this: If I (a person formerly part of the audience) pick up my mobile phone (a press tool) and call a friend to say 'hi, I'm eating lunch' (informing him of something), this is not journalism, (let alone citizen journalism).

This is why citizen journalism is a digitally-based phenomenon because it allows for simple one to many publication. Consider the difference between these examples:
  • I pick up my phone and take a photo of a road traffic accident and show my friend. This is not journalism.
  • I pick up my phone and take a photo of a road traffic accident and upload it to Internet photo-sharing site Flickr where it is published. It may only be looked at by my friend but it has the potential to be viewed by many. This is more like journalism.
But 'journalism' also relates to the subject matter. In this case the picture of the road traffic accident might be newsworthy - (another difficult concept to define and currently undergoing significant change but best explained by example). The accident might have been caused by a drink-driver who's killed a passenger in another car. This is a local news story, raising issues about road safety, and drink-driving legislation. There will also be a court case to cover etc.

Would it be journalism if I took a picture of a daffodil in my garden and posted it on Flickr. This may be informative and interesting (somehow) but is it journalism? I don't think so. Now people's definitions of a newsworthy event change and alter, and I'm certain that 'the citizen journalism' phenomenon has vastly broadened the definition of a 'newsworthy event' (for the better), but I still think the concept of 'news' is different from 'information'.

Merely informing one another is not journalism. This happens all the time. Teachers inform children in classes all the time, but this isn't journalism is it?

So what of Jay Rosen's definition? I think it might be worth adding emphasis on publication by including the word 'many' and also sticking in the phrase 'an event deemed to be newsworthy' or for brevity just 'a newsworthy event'. Here's my stab at it:

"When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform many others of a newsworthy event, that’s citizen journalism."

I'm sure there will be further thoughts...

Updated: 18/07/08
  • Dr Andrew Cline at Missouri State University has a think about the 'tools' aspect of the definition.
  • And if you haven't had a look already from the link at the top of page, Jay Rosen does a great job of collecting other bits and pieces that are relevant to his post.
Updated 23/07/08

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