By Sonya Rehman
From ‘Blogger’, ‘Wordpress’, ‘Flickr’, ‘Youtube’, discussion forums and a host of other websites, Citizen Journalism (also known as public journalism) has truly shot through the roof over the past few years!
Even CNN’s ‘iReport’ website caters to anyone and everyone – irrespective of class, creed, and religion – to participate in reporting current events in addition to giving their take on a particular subject matter.
I would even go so far in stating that ‘Facebook’ too acts as quite a podium for its users to vent out via their Facebook statuses and penning short, snappy opinion pieces on Facebook’s ‘Notes’ section which allows its users to publish text, images and videos! Recently during the Long March, I found myself most intrigued while reading the status updates and notes of many friends and acquaintances on my list. Infact, almost every news tidbit ‘just in’ would immediately be broadcasted on Facebook by someone I knew, which would then be followed up by a host of fiery, and utterly fascinating comments by their friends.
The ‘chain reaction’ (if you may) of Citizen Journalism is swift and super-charged, wired and raw. It’s almost like a row of countless dominoes which keep going on and on and on, once propelled.
With Citizen Journalism the dialogue never ends, and the views always depict different facets to a story.
In 2008 a much-welcomed addition to citizen journalism portals is a website known as ‘Demotix’. Founded by Turi Munthe and Jonathan Tepper, Demotix was initiated “with two principles at its heart”, Turi states (in an email in response to mine), “The freedom of speech and the freedom to know. Its objective is nothing if not ambitious – to rescue journalism by connecting independent journalists with the traditional media.”
Interestingly, Turi believes that field-reporting is fast-fading in this day and age. “There are no more journalists”, he states matter-of-factly, “The internet and big businesses have killed them off. The huge uptake in use of the internet along with the business ownership structure of media groups, are the main reason for its decline. Quality international journalism is in dire trouble, but Demotix believes it cannot be lost. Only four US newspapers now maintain a foreign desk – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times. That is four newspapers with reporters dedicated to covering the rest of the world in a country of over 300 million people. In the last few weeks alone, The San Francisco Chronicle has been threatened with closure, the Philadelphia Enquirer has gone down, and there are rumours the New York Times may not be able to refinance its $1billion debt in May. That’s just the US. In the UK, even the Financial Times recently sacked 40 staff members!”
But unlike blogs which primarily focus on text, Demotix only features images and video clips. However, what steps does the portal take to ensure each submission’s credibility? Because with the internet one can never tell – almost anything online can be plagiarized. “This is a problem which is not just faced by Citizen Journalism agencies. In the past few years several major news agencies – including Reuters, AP and Getty – have faced accusations that they distributed faked, altered or misleading photography”, Turi states, “Verifiability is something that Demotix takes extremely seriously – without the trust of our contributors and clients we could not survive. Before we license an image, we speak personally to the photographer and carry out as many checks as are necessary to satisfy ourselves completely that the work is an accurate and truthful depiction of events as they happened. We also believe that nothing moderates itself better than a community. As the discussion over our images from the Gaza conflict showed, there will always be people ready and willing to analyze and question photographs where necessary. The more sensitive the topic, the closer this scrutiny will be.”
So here’s how it works, if a particular news agency wants to buy your submission (which is featured on Demotix), you get to keep fifty percent of the profits, while Demotix pockets the remaining fifty. It’s quite simple. Since its inception, the portal has made quite a few sales to well-known media houses such as the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, and the BBC.
“We have also received a huge amount of interest and support from organizations dealing with freedom of speech and advocacy issues. We have partnered with Reporters Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, and are backed by the United Nations”, Turi affirms.
Recently returning from a trip to Pakistan, Turi said that he had traveled around South Asia to meet anyone who had a story to share. In his two-week trip, Turi met with many “extraordinary photographers immensely brave journalists, activists, students, newspaper editors, and media owners.”
New to Demotix and based in Lahore, Heather Carreiro (a writer for the Associated Content) subscribes to the notion that Citizen Journalism “is essential for the media to accurately portray world events and give insight into different cultures. Many times the mainstream media ends up presenting a skewed view of situations because the reporters are only able to see the event from one perspective. For many breaking news stories around the world, journalists are flown in to cover the events. They lack the background knowledge, language skills, and cultural clues that would give them a fuller picture of the events at hand. Those who can accurately portray events and give valid insights are people who were there when the event happened and have the background knowledge necessary to understand the event as it pertains to the wider picture. Citizen Journalists often have both of these advantages.”
Khaver Siddiqi, a cultural journalist based in Karachi, has a different take: “Citizen Journalism is a volatile concept, and is something that will redefine journalism as we know it. Why is it volatile? Not everybody can be a journalist, a job that requires absolute neutrality combined with a dedication to get the news out. In an age where terrorism and fanaticism are quickly becoming up to date on technology, who will say who is a citizen journalist or a pawn of terror in its guise? However, there can be something good out of this too. People will be motivated enough to spread the word out to the world, which even though is growing smaller by the second, still has a lot to discover about itself.”
“Today, bloggers are interviewed almost as often as experts on television”, Kalsoom Lakhani (a Pakistani blogger based in Washington DC) says, “Forums like ‘Twitter’ and blogs allow for real-time reporting, and doesn’t require the red tape and hoops journalists may have to go through with their editors. With my blog, ‘CHUP – Changing Up Pakistan’, I have noticed that readers of my site are active participants – debating on various topics and questions raised in my analysis. It has altered one’s previous conceptions of journalism – today, we are not only the consumers of information, but we are also the active producers.”
In November, 2007, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency within the country – the local media organizations, writers, analysts, journalists, activists and members of the civil society were up in arms.
It was a very surreal, almost dark patch for our media houses. Anger ran deep. But to combat this ‘blanketing of the media’ back then, websites, portals and blogs were availed for Pakistanis to voice their opinions, put up video clips, and state things how they saw them to be.
It was these very portals which came as a great source of relief, as they gave a podium to a wide cross-section of the Pakistani civil society in their hour of need.
That being stated, while Citizen Journalism may have its fair share of loop-holes vis-à-vis plagiarism and credibility, ask yourself – how credible are those sensationalist media houses both at home and abroad?
In Citizen Journalism, every voice counts. And ‘news just in’ reported by just about anyone – sitting smack in the middle of a groundbreaking event – perhaps carries much more significance than a sketchy report (of the event) penned by someone sitting on the opposite side of the world.
The Friday Times