In 2012, Reporters without borders* identified 30 netizen and citizen journalists killed around the world and 128 that have been imprisoned. The price they pay is extremely high, but it is because their work is about raising awareness of the social and political turmoil within their countries; the kind of stories that people in power want to keep hidden.
In Syria, for instance, 29 citizen reporters have lost their lives. Targeting them is meant to stop them from exposing the injustice on the ground. The situation is critical such that the victims of the oppression are normal citizens who don’t always belong to any professional press or media organ and whose only weapons are words and smartphones.
Who are they? And what pushes them to trade their passivity and “quiet life” for the adventurous race of journalism?
Grassroots, participatory, street or citizen journalism… The denominations are multiple but they represent the same profile: “a person who has the necessary tools to spread information, pictures and videos (smart phone, laptop, internet connection) but who does not do it within an institution for a paid salary. He uses alternative news media - mostly self-created - as a platform to spread his/her work.” Dima Khatib, journalist in Aljazeera and an Arab blogger explains that a citizen journalist can be anyone, not necessarily a person who studied or practiced journalism. They follow no code of ethics nor have a professional creed except self-imposed ones.
-Citizen journalists have the advantage of being independent from the system but they also lack the credibility of a professional journalist. A citizen journalist is always expected to be subjective in his/her coverage of events, seeing things from their own personal perspective.
Khatib distinguishes two types of citizen journalists, occasional and dedicated ones.
-The first can be born in a matter of minutes without prior preparation or planning, finding themselves accidentally in the middle of an event which they can film and then spread the pictures and their own accounts of it.
-The second category plan to cover events, and sometimes they are part of the organization itself of the events they cover. They have blogs, readers, followers, etc. And some of them have great credibility obtained over time and through practice. They become a regular source for traditional media and even analysts. Some even become online stars!
The reasons behind the advent of this phenomenon are not haphazard. It can be one or the correlation of many factors. The basic one that comes to mind may be the amateurism of some who would engage in the journalistic vocation as a pastime rather than a profession. Call them bloggers or writers in heart; they are, to a certain extent playing the role of reporters too.
For Olivier Truc, French journalist and Nordic and Baltic correspondent based in Sweden, motivations are numerous.
-The fact that a person who is not a professional journalist wants to convey information, and share it with the largest number of people should not be surprising. It is much needed. This person can be a privileged witness of an injustice and react to it, says Truc.
Besides, the absence of free independent media may also explain this new tendency. It is also relevant to link it to the loss of trust in the classical mainstream media because of the lack or the manipulation in covering certain issues. They broadcast information to the public at large, but the news agenda setting may still be too narrow.
In that sense, Khatib emphasizes that “mass media has agendas and makes editorial decisions which may transform or present an event in a way that is very different to how the people living that event would see it. So citizens decide to show their own point of view. Also, media might not care about certain topics, so citizen journalists try to push those topics onto the table.”
-In developed countries, citizen journalists are fighting the monopoly of news by mass media which is controlled by some economic and political elite, Khatib adds.
The product of its particular environment
Citizen journalistic experiences differ from one context to another in terms of roles and objectives, the produced contents, their formats and their quality.
In Nordic countries, for instance, Truc considers that “citizen journalists” work closely with traditional media as witnesses.
- They call people for testimonies and encourage those with exclusive information to communicate it to them. In the end, traditional media take the benefit from these “reporters” without even paying them like real journalists.
In other regions of the world, citizen journalists are more active. They are not only the countermeasure to the established media system but also to the political one.
In the case of Arab revolutions, Truc talks about real citizen reporters who have the technical means that allow them to cover a situation ‘live’. Yet, they cannot be considered as journalists that are accountable for their work. Truc prefers to call them “observers”, a concept used by “France 24”, the French TV Network. “That seems more honest.”
For Khatib, the Arab revolutions gave citizen journalists quite a big opportunity to flourish and become influential and powerful, as well as indispensable.
-In countries where a free press is totally banned, the only way to get the information out is through alternative journalism such as citizen journalism. Brave citizens risk their lives to film and spread pictures of protests and crackdown in countries where no journalists are allowed to be or to work.
-Outside this total blackout /censorship context, citizen journalists have become very useful complementary sources of information. If traditional media do not cover something, then citizen journalists will. If traditional media covers something in an incomplete or biased way, citizen journalists will come up with the missing parts or points of view of the story. Citizen journalists sometimes manage to force their own news agenda on traditional media by showing online what traditional media do not show and cornering mass media into covering what they might not have wanted to cover otherwise.
Khatib recognizes that Arab Revolutions have set a new path for citizen journalists. However, she points out that citizen journalists in the Arab World are still a minority as they will have access to education, internet, hi-tech, etc.
-They are also a minority that can afford to either do the citizen journalism work outside working or study hours, or even just dedicate all their time for it, thus having an alternative source of income from their family or their savings. Therefore they don’t necessarily represent all of society at all times.
About their impact on the ground, Khatib believes that they have surprised the Arab governments who did not expect them to be so powerful.
-Citizen journalists proved to be very resourceful in facing state practices aimed at stopping any coverage of the protests and the crackdown. Without these citizen journalists how would we have known what was happening in every small village in Tunisia, in the heart of Tahrir Square at night, in Syria or in Bahrain? Without the fast circulation of information, the protests might have taken a longer time to spread geographically. Even in countries like Saudi Arabia where revolution has not taken place, citizen journalists have been active in telling us about political prisoners or protests in the eastern part of the country.
The relationship with the professional media
New actors have then been introduced to today’s media scenery playing a role in informing the public and unveiling facts. Some traditional media in their attempt to follow this movement and to adopt it somehow, propose services inviting the public to share information: blogging in newspaper web pages, participating via video-telephony or posting videos on TV programs. Yet, we cannot talk about a real cohabitation of citizenry and professional journalism. A primary reason is that the citizen journalists do not produce work regularly enough or in an organized manner that allows them to compete. Secondly, professional journalists remain cautious about the way they need to deal with citizen journalists work, for several reasons.
As a journalist, Truc sees that his role is increasingly to sort out the continuous flow of information coming from multiple sources. But also, as a reporter, he has to go more and more on the ground, to feel and see things, speak and listen to people. As a professional, Truc invests both his competence and his title; he follows an established code of ethics. His readers have expectations from him, including a sense of hierarchy or peer review of the information he disseminates. “We can’t require the same thing from citizen journalists” he exclaims.
Nowadays, new media offer more visibility. Citizen reporters can skip the traditional media and create their tribunes within social networks. But, they should get into the traditional media if they want recognition.
Truc gives the example of Syria where some individuals who are not journalists take the camera and become indispensable witnesses, risking their lives.
-Those who will emerge and whose reputation will grow gradually will become journalists, even without a press card and a pay slip. Hopefully, they will create a future for a new Syrian independent media.
For Khatib, dealing with citizen journalists started mainly with the Arab revolutions. She has been in touch with some of them occasionally in her work in Latin America. But with Arab uprisings, she learned to interact with them on a daily basis, use them as a source of information and audio-video material.
Khatib does not trust any citizen journalist. She has developed her own methods for verifying the veracity of their information, especially with many of them being anonymous.
-With time I became familiar with citizen journalists spread across the Arab World, says Khatib. I became aware of their different points of view. Some have very high degrees of credibility to me, some have less. I did meet many of them face to face in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia after having dealt with them for months online while covering the Arab Revolutions on social media networks from my home in Caracas.
This personal contact helps her to make judgments as to their credibility and their point of view. Khatib explains that she often uses, in coverage of Arab revolutions on Twitter, information and material gathered by citizen journalists on the ground; she puts it into context, using her knowledge, experience and credibility as a professional journalist.
Khatib sees in this a very good example of collaboration between the two forms of journalism. In her point of view, the relationship between citizen journalism and classical media is a forced marriage.
- They have to learn to co-exist peacefully, respecting each other and trying to take advantage of each other’s existence rather than be confrontational. One cannot exist without the other anymore.
A common fate!
They have different statuses, experiences, publics, credibility and practices, except that in hot zones they may face the same dangers. Data is available about professional journalists that have been targeted during the coverage of an armed conflict. Unfortunately, citizen journalists, unlike the professional ones, are largely unknown to the media groups even when they are persecuted in times of war. Despite the fact that they risk their safety and lives for the sake of broadcasting their voices and the pulse of the street, they remain anonymous.