The Guardian voluntary sector network has an
interesting provocative piece headlined How citizen journalism is setting the local agenda which goes on to say:
Hyper-local news, websites and blogs are inextricably linked to cohesion and engagement within communities.
Adding in a caption:
Many local bloggers and writers may not recognise themselves as citizen journalists, but they are telling their story and connecting local people.
The first point is supported by the Networked Neighbourhoods research by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris, though not cited in the piece.
Mandeep Hothi, also writing recently for the Guardian, has a nuanced view – as I’m sure do Kevin and Hugh – about the role of social media in communities. Mandeep wrote:
Our experience suggests that social media is not the shortcut to higher participation that we all hoped it might be. On the websites and social networks we helped residents set up, the numbers of people who are engaging in conversation with each other is quite small. It varies amongst sites, but the highest is around 10% of network members.
If you read both studies, they show how complex is the role of new media in the local communication ecosystem, that’s made up of many informal and formal relationships, enhanced or disrupted by the effort of newspapers, radio, TV, blogs, websites, Twitter etc
… which is why I
bridled got cross about the Guardian piece’s second point, which implies that local online writers and bloggers should be branded (whether they like it or not) as citizen journalists. Some may like the label, other may feel that “journalist” is not currently a term that engenders a lot of trust among citizens, however unfair that may be to the majority that do an honest job.
The Guardian piece is written by Gavin Sheppard, marketing director at the Media Trust, who are running Newsnet, supported by the Big Lottery Fund as part of People Powered Change. I’ve written lots before about Newsnet and its role in networking civil society, including an early challenge on How helpful is journalism for People Powered Change?
After citing the excellent work of the Preston blog in a campaign, Gavin writes:
The Poynter Street residents, like many communities across the country, may not recognise themselves as citizen journalists, but they are telling their local story, connecting with others and harnessing support for local people. They are reflecting many of the qualities of citizen journalism. This dedication to the local community deserves to be nurtured and supported and can benefit from learning, connecting and sharing with others.
My challenge is on two fronts. First, that while mainstream journalism is essential for democracy, challenging powerful institutions, bravely reporting from wars and disasters … and keeping us amused … the news values of conflict, crisis, celebrity aren’t necessarily helpful to collaboration and community building, which is important in civic life. Thanks to Nick Booth of Podnosh for highlighting this a few years back.
So while it is hugely important that some bloggers, like those in Preston, take on – and sometimes improve on – the reducing role of local papers in running campaigns and holding councils to account, “journalism” is only a part of the community media that we need.
Some bloggers and users of social media in local communities want to call themselves citizen journalists, and hopefully take on the best aspects of journalism in being inquisitive on behalf of others, and “speaking truth to power”. Fine …. but to what code do they operate in the way that they report? And are they just a loud voice in the community … the equivalent of those who can dominate public meetings? Some are hugely ethical, collaborative, supportive of others … some less so. As journalists they don’t necessarily “connect local people”: that’s more of a role for community organisers and builders.
We need a discussion around citizen journalism in parallel with that about mainstream journalism. We know mainstream journalism has to be, in part, about making money for the proprietors, balanced with a societal role. What are the equivalent tensions in citizen journalism?
At the same time, the majority of those using social media in an enormous variety of ways for social impact do not choose to call themselves “journalists”. I explored this wide use of social technology with co-authors Amy Sample Ward and Andy Gibson in the NESTA-funded publication Social by Social a couple of years ago.
So my second point is that trying to brand citizen media as citizen journalists is unhelpful. If people “may not recognise themselves as citizen journalists” it’s not for the Media Trust to say that they are.
I think that Newsnet – which is funded £1.89 million by those of us who buy lottery tickets – could both play an important role in this discussion, and help amplify the work of those using community media. Adam Perry is indeed blogging about that on Newsnet.
If Newsnet is going to stick to supporting “journalism” then we need some other ways to connect and amplify the use of social media for local social good … as I rambled on about here: The challenge of networking civil society.
Although Newsnet was funded by BIG last year, and “launched” five weeks ago, it has yet to carry any news: their “single publishing interface” is still promised (see comments). The site is currently simple a set of blogs and forums within the Media Trust site (see discussion).
So yes, let’s applaud the best of citizen journalism, but not put easy branding above some very complex substance.
Disclosure: I worked for Big Lottery Fund last year exploring their role as more than a funder.
Note to self: there’s another potential client gone. That’s the problem with being a social reporter … the critical journalist in me keeps breaking out.