Sunday, November 18, 2007

Citizen journalism: a different perspective

"It can be difficult to determine exactly where the line between citizen and professional journalism falls. After all, even hardened political commentators are also citizens and there is substantial overlap between independent and mainstream media, both in personnel and in the exchange of information and ideas."Rachel Hills

There is an increasing recognition (well analysed by Margaret Simons in her recent book The Content Makers) that journalism as a form can, and perhaps should, exist independently from the medium which delivers it. Just as “blogging” is now too narrow a concept for what has become a practice rather than a platform, so too I suspect that aspects of “journalism” crowd out what’s involved in “citizen”. That is to say, I question what value is added if those who see themselves as citizen journos try to do the same sort of thing in the same sort of stereotyped way as journos do. That’s not meant to be a criticism of journalists as such, but rather a recognition that the constraints of editorial power, format and traditional form place real limits on creativity and innovation. Although CitJ doesn’t have the resources that big J Journalism does, its contribution should be distinctive and not an echo. I’m not sure at all that interviewing candidates and asking a bland set of questions (”what are the main issues in this electorate?”) becomes interesting just because it’s popped up on YouTube.

Some of this might be compounded because many of those attracted to CitJ are actually journalism or media students doing a bit of resume building - there’s nothing wrong with that - but it would seem to me to encourage a more formulaic style of practice to pad out the resume and the writing portfolio. While Jason Wilson of youdecide2007 is right to suggest that CitJ has the potential to break outside of an “insider’s perspective”, actually doing that requires something rather different from just being someone who’s “reporting” but not getting paid for it. None of this should be taken as critical - I’m well aware that CitJ in Australia is in its infancy, but it is worth doing some thinking about what role it can play, and how it can play that role.

Hills points to Election Tracker as a positive example of CitJ practice. She writes:

Where these sites, often referred to as “citizen journalism”, differ from traditional media is that while the content they publish might be of professional quality, that content is as much about the experience of the contributor as it is about informing the reader.

That’s spot on, I think, and that’s what’s good about blogging (and for that matter, much of the writing in online media such as Crikey and New Matilda) - the sense that a different perspective is being offered, and one that doesn’t just offer a distinctive voice but also is deeply personal. The interactivity that online writing fosters also adds to the fact that what we are or should be seeing is a conversation between persons rather than a “professional” message directed to an audience. If you think about it, this isn’t necessarily all that new - the great “literary journalists” such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion exemplify at least the first aspect of this form of writing.

So my advice to aspiring citizen journos would be to put the personal into the political.

Election Tracker facilitates that, because as well as filing stories, the writers
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