DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Citizen journalist - the new kid on the block


I had never imagined that I would ever come anywhere near the field of journalism. Having spent 30-odd years in the government I agreed with the assertions of many of my colleagues that I had, like them, become practically “useless” for all purposes. Destiny, however, seemed to have willed something else for me.


I established base at Bhopal (India) to spend the (post-retirement) home-stretch. With no pre-occupation and a mind still mercifully agile I progressively became conscious of my surroundings. The lack or, in many ways, total absence of civic amenities in this what-could-be-a-beautiful town irked me. With time available in profusion, I resurrected my Silver Reed portable typewriter and hammered away to churn out letters to the editors of local dailies. Some did seem to have impact, a majority did not. From civic issues I slowly graduated to topical, national and environmental issues and despatched my thoughts to national dailies. That venerable newspaper, The Statesman, highly regarded for its quality of content and language edited by the legendary CR Irani, would publish them, often, lo and behold, the title of my letter figuring as the headline for the “Letters” section. My life seemed to have been made!


Consumed by the obsession to express my views more effectively I took lessons in computing – along with kids old enough to be my grand-children. The computer, with its awesome capabilities, made things far easier. Egged on by my elder brother, I tried my hand at writing articles. Some of them, when finished, appeared good. Soon enough the City Supplement of the local edition of Hindustan Times started carrying my pieces, mostly on civic issues. Even Manuj Features, the erstwhile features agency spawned by the Makhalal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism, accepted my output and disseminated them to its subscribers. I had emerged as a casual columnist.


It was nothing intellectual that I wrote. I only gave expression to my reactions, positive or negative, to issues– local, topical, national or environmental – as an ordinary individual that I thought needed expression, generally, with relevant information culled from various sources. It was neither sycophantic, nor was it in any way “muckraking”. I wrote like a civic-minded non-professional within the given constraints of limited space seeking, as Sarah McClendon (1910-2003), the well-regarded American journalist, once said while claiming to be a citizen journalist, “To give more information to the people …for their own good”. Unknowingly, more than half a dozen years ago I, too, had become, somewhat of a “citizen journalist”, a term which, back then, was still far away from common parlance in this country.


Conceptually speaking, citizen journalism involves, as Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, so-called progenitors of “the golden age of journalism” said, in citizens "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information…The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires". Citizen journalism has, therefore, been variously described as “public” or “participatory” journalism or even “democratic journalism”.


JD Lasica, a leading authority on “social media” and “user created media”, has broadly classified citizen journalism, inter alia, into (1) Audience Participation: with comments, blogs, photos or video footage, (2) Independent news and information websites: such as consumer reports etc., (3) Full-fledged participatory news sites (4) Contributory and collaborative media sites.


Although the idea that the average citizen could engage in journalistic effort has a pretty long history yet the professionals, with their training and corporate resources, seldom yielded any space to amateurs. Avid readers of newspapers would have noticed the progressively shrinking space for even readers’ views. And, of course, a non-professional can hardly ever break through the barrier of professionals who form into a coterie, monopolising news analyses in the corporate media.


However, with the progressive erosion of trust in the mainstream news-media, public journalism gathered strength. Technology gave fillip to it as an ordinary citizen could capture news and news-worthy incidents with photographs or video footage and distribute them globally. The journalism that was “by the people” began to flourish with the emerging internet and networking technologies. The audience of the conventional media, which so far had been harangued and sometime misled by partisan considerations, took it upon itself to report and project more objective news and views. In South Korea, OhmyNews founded by Oh Yeon-ho in 2000 with the motto "Every Citizen is a Reporter” became popular and even commercially successful. In this context mention must also be made of the Independent Media Centre (a.k.a Indymedia or IMC) that came into existence in 1999 during the anti-WTO protests at Seattle as a participatory network of journalists that reports on socio-political issues. Featuring as a milestone in the history of citizen journalism, Indymedia has pursued open publishing and democratic media process allowing all and sundry to contribute.


Not yet bound by any law, as perhaps professional journalists are in certain countries, the citizen journalists, ideally speaking, have to abide by some basic principles that demand a great degree of rectitude from them. To be purposeful and effective citizen journalism has got to be so. Hence, accuracy of facts, thoroughness, fairness of content and comment, transparency – the principle being “disclose, disclose, disclose” – and independence and non-partisan proclivities are attributes that generally are desirable and mostly insisted upon.


Technology having given a kind of head-start, citizen journalism has come a long way. Growing appreciation of its importance has fostered a mushroom growth of websites world over inviting and hosting content in the shapes of news, comments, blogs, photos or videos from the audience. Even the traditional media organisations – big or small, print or electronic – having gone online, have staff blogs and also invite audience participation in actual journalism. While a new phenomenon of “Mojo” – mobile journos – is on the horizon, using fast and versatile 3G networks, a prospective citizen journo would find umpteen hosts of his choice on a web-search.
Although a recent phenomenon, citizen journalism websites have become popular in India. Here, too, as elsewhere, citizen journalism was the result of “digital era’s democratisation of the media – wide access to powerful, inexpensive tools of media creation and wide access to what people created, via digital networks.” While whitedrums.com was launched in 2005, many popular sites like merinews.com, Mynews.in, Purdafash.com, Rediff.com etc. that came up around the same time seem to be flourishing. Their role-model being OhmyNews.com, they generally report on more serious issues like climate change, health topics, science, politics, environmental or social problems.


Regardless of what the sceptics think citizens’ reportage has gathered nothing but strength. World over – in the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and South Asia – new start-ups are appearing by the day. Yet credibility of the reportage is what the progress of citizen journalism hinges on. At a conference in Seoul in 2007, hosted by OhmyNews, the hugely successful citizen journalism medium, certain preconditions were set forth for user-created content centring on credibility, trustworthiness, influence and sustainability. Like in traditional media run by trained professionals, that, perhaps, cannot always be ensured.


Besides, the question that is raised often is whether an ordinary citizen can be a reporter. Rory O’Connor of Guardian says why not. “After all, I've been a professional journalist for decades - yet I never took a course in it, received a license for it or got anointed on high. So here's my advice - if you don't like the news, report some of your own.”


I have, for the last few months, been doing just that – reporting to OhmyNews, GroundReport, HumanTimes, merinews, Mynews. The response has been encouraging and experience rewarding.

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