If you were to hazard a guess, how many blogs do you think there are on the internet? An impossible quantity, surely? Well you’d be right. On Tumblr alone there are 319.8 million - that’s the entire population of the USA.Write
Nowadays, everybody has the ability to publish their views, opinions and expertise online. Instantly. Constantly. Forever - as long as they have access to the internet. This newfound freedom has laid the foundations for a new kind of reporting - citizen journalism, the practice of ordinary people, not professional journalists, using blogging, social media and the internet to report the news or talk about the issues that matter to them.
This has revolutionised the notion of free speech and the way we report and consume news. Where once we would have bought a newspaper or tuned into the six o’clock news to find out what was going on, we can now check our phones instantly and watch Facebook Live streams at the scene of a crime, parliamentary debate or press conference.
This means that people who have traditionally been marginalised by news organisations can make their voices heard. Media Diversified is a non-profit organisation that cultivates and promotes skilled writers of colour. Their website has been live since 2013 and provides content that contributes to global discussions on social justice, equality, gender, politics, economics and pop culture.
Henna Zamurd-Butt, editor-in-chief of Media Diversified explains: “Activists are using advances in communications technologies to mobilise civic action. New media platforms also help to bypass traditional gatekeepers, this is especially powerful when user-generated content such as video can directly reach audiences.”
And it works. Media Diversified have found that they are able to impact opinions through their content.
Henna says: “We've had our writers published and quoted in other media; teachers using our articles in the classroom; and other media organisations calling on us to help them in diversifying their work. I think all of this together works to enrich and develop the public sphere.”
But, while anyone can publish their thoughts to vast audiences, they often still come up against the same blockers. Henna points out that although there are new levels of freedom when it comes to publishing, “the platforms we're using are still shaped by huge multi-national companies in the global north.”
Rob Bailey, former news editor and reporting lecturer at the Centre for Journalism, found something similar while researching his paper Citizen journalist or citizen agitator?
He explains: “When the power to self-publish to a global audience was first identified it seemed to offer exciting opportunities in a world that many people felt was dominated by the narrow, self-serving news agenda of mainstream media organisations. A decade later, we’re still waiting for that revolution to be fully realised.
“Despite that, there can be little doubt that citizen journalism has opened our eyes to stories that may not have been told before.”
This type of community-led journalism wasn’t possible before the internet. The news agenda was set by journalists and politicians, which meant smaller or more niche stories were often bypassed completely.
And, in a way, citizen journalism can be seen as a reaction against this top-down coverage. Armed with a smartphone and an internet connection, everyday people are able to cover the news that is important to their community. Events the mainstream media may consider insignificant or too small to cover - like a local badger cull sabotage - can be covered and shared to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.
What’s more, in an age where local journalism is at serious risk of extinction, citizen journalism is needed more than ever to make sure the stories that need to be told are told.
Rob says: “We are seeing a desperate decline in the number of local newspapers and local reporters in the UK. The Press Gazette said in December 2016 that 198 regional titles had been shut down since 2005. Over the same period we have seen the rise of a new hyperlocal journalism written by concerned citizens and published online.”
This kind of grassroots journalism has created a real opportunity for passionate people to spread their messages and make sure that the issues they care about are covered. However, in most cases the creators of this content do so for a cause - and don’t identify as reporters at all. In fact, they often shun this term completely.
Rob explains: “The people creating these websites and blogs are campaigners and activists who often start out with a passion to tackle a single issue – whether that’s an unpopular recycling policy in Preston or the need for more accessibility for disabled people in Medway – and find themselves drawn into something more like reporting. These bloggers and tweeters have the power to unearth the stories that would once have been dug up by old-fashioned regional hacks.”
So, is citizen journalism the future? Rob doesn’t think so, at least not entirely. Instead he suggests a model based on collaboration. Citizen journalists, or activists, often create content that differs from the fact-heavy formats used by traditional news outlets. In the same way, these traditional formats often lack the detail or passion that can be found on a blog or website. Marrying the two together could help to create an all-encompassing approach to reporting, and prove a remedy to the widespread public disengagement with current affairs and news.
“Professional journalists and citizens are two parts of a puzzle, which is crucial to the future of truth-telling journalism. When they have come together, the results have been extraordinary.” Rob concludes. And, in a post fake-news world, truth-telling journalism is exactly what audiences want. Citizens and activists are crucial in ensuring the realities of government cuts, global warming and factory farming are laid bare, so what are you waiting for? Get writing, blogging, vlogging and posting!