Commentary of an Academic
(Copyright @ 2014 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).
Citizen journalism is a democratic, guerilla, participatory, public, and street journalism where an individual or groups of people are enjoined to play active and greater role in the process of analyzing, collecting, disseminating, and reporting news and information. Furthermore, it is an alternative and activist form of newsgathering and informing that function outside mainstream media institutions.
To me, I would like to call it as a “selfie newscasting,” a layman’s jargon in which citizen journalism can take a new form of personal reportage from the “I” standpoint using phones, emails, and new apps via new media and/or various platforms provided by phenomenal social media to any wrong doing or irregularity.
Obviously it is social media that paved way to citizen journalism as a necessity to the right to communicate in its evolving terms and conditions. The social media introduced and widened the scope of citizen journalism that has created, mobilized, and demonstrated waves of consciousness and action that reach much more people than traditional industrial media.
With the expanding sphere of influence of social media through the cyberspace, this has led many governments and individuals to acknowledge the power of social media by engaging its citizens to participate in state-owned and personal social activities such as elections and policy-making.
It is apparent now that citizen journalists can establish wide readership through blogs or micro-blogs in which some bloggers and online writers can even emerge as “stars” with large pool of follower netizens under the political sphere of blogosphere by developing an established network of contacts and readers. These citizen journalists can draw wide readership that are untapped by traditional media.
Democratizing the playing field of media
In my view as a social scientist, citizen journalism has leveled off the playing field for professional journalists and wannabe journalists. In the process of leveling off the playing field, it has also offered alternative platforms for the media industry to challenge professional and institutionalized practices of the mainstream media. In other words, this called for reawakening in the sense and sensibilities of concerned citizens to participate in a rapidly changing cultural landscape the world has never witnessed before.
Democratizing journalism away from the social ills of the political economy of traditional media propounded by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky has been defied now by the emergence of citizen journalism as an unconventional way of disseminating information and the right to communicate.
This phenomenon has certainly bridged the wall of the elites and the masses whereby elite domination of the media as manifested in their dominating choices and interpretations of “objective” news and arrangement of professional news values can be disputed by new actors or manufacturers of information. Therefore the subjectivity of information and reliance of sources can break the monopoly of mainstream networks because the playing field is starting to be leveled off and democratized.
In spite of democratizing the process, new and natural forms of monopoly are in the offing that would take place as the hegemony for ownership of technology and broadband will be the next frontiers in the media industry.
For example, the diversification and geographic spread of traditional media companies and outfits are strengthening. The clout of their network is globalizing. This phenomenon is also happening in the Philippines through the ever expanding regional networks of major TV companies. The partnership of radio-TV-cable networks war in partnership with major newspaper dailies and biggest telecommunication companies are mushrooming and highly encouraged in essence of diversification. Therefore, ‘quadmedia’ – print, radio, television, and the internet are fused and merged together to compete for the ‘content’ and ‘context’ of historical, current, local, and global events.
Inadvertently, the advent and propagation of social media sites and latest applications has led in an interesting time of people engagement and participation. In my own understanding, citizen journalism is a people power movement in the information age. Much of the activities in these platforms revolve around the ideal currency of power. Hence, power is an ideal as social actors eventually gain more and more either materially from interactions of people. Empowerment has been circulating and rapidly advancing in information technology through an increased degree of personal and group ability to access online resources and interact with other social actors.
Case study: media ninja as agents of social change
One of the interesting, if not a successful form of citizen journalism would be Brazil’s media ninja which reached the peak of its popularity in the information superhighway last year. Based from pop culture, ninjas are perceived to be strategic, smart and sneaky. However, in a techno-driven and globalized world, becoming a media ninja is open to all concerned global citizens. For media ninjas, they also plan and choose strategic battles, change game and experiment, and they feel no one is alone in the virtual community. They become media agents and independent citizen journalists.
In Brazil, media ninjas were hailed as the newest ambassadors when Argentinean-Italian and the most technology-savvy pope so far, Pope Francis visited the largest country in South America. The Brazilian citizen journalists used social media to plan, broadcasts, and deliver blow-by-blow accounts of the papal visit as they addressed to the pope and to the Brazilian authorities the many social issues their country were facing at that time.
Although, they were confronted with the many perils in embracing this calling as citizen journalists and media ninjas; they risked their lives covering major news events and street protests to get first-hand information and be a witness of the current events as they write and broadcast the highlights of events in the purview of balanced social media.
Case Study: The Philippines experience during #Yolanda
The Philippines also learned from Brazil’s media ninjas. As our global village decongests, there is now increased interactions among people from all continents of the world to create, share, and exchange rapid information and ideas via virtual community.
Our country has not been left behind in this genre but sometimes it is a leading source of citizen journalism. Major Philippine networks like ABS-CBN2, GMA-7, and TV-5 launched their own segments of citizen journalism programs to bandwagon with this trending media platform. Through citizen journalism, it empowers people to express their opinions since the wide webspace offers virtual activists an important degree of information and communication independence from the mass media.
Also a year ago, the #help PH flooded twitter when super typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan struck the country. Help from different parts of the country and the international community started pouring in. Pictures and videos during and about the aftermath of the strongest storm have become viral that caught the attention of our fellowmen and global citizens. From hashtags, statuses, memes, selfies and other forms of self-expression in social media, these media developments have influenced how we feed and get quick information.
It is very observable that many netizens are using social media in expressing not just their personal concerns and experiences, but also in verbalizing their thoughts about various political and social issues in the country. The strong presence of technology becomes the avenue to vex their angst and share of opinions; thus, they can also be mobilized for common goals depending on their own interests and advocacy.
As myriads Filipino netizens today have the power to change the world by entering the realm of cyberspace, people have become more critical to social commentaries of national, regional, and global importance. These new forms of empowerment can truly aid us to converge together and present real stories in the virtual community. Therefore, it is our mission to foster the values of responsible citizen journalism in our deterritorialized world.
Ethical issues and social responsibility in citizen journalism
Admittedly, most of practitioners of citizen journalism are not professional journalists. Most run their own show in the forms of blog, videos, and social media accounts, out of curiosity and for fame. One study says that the contribution of professional journalism to democratize citizenship is well-established but the proliferation of online user-generated news begs the question of whether citizen journalism plays a similar role.
Ethical issues escalate as to whether citizen journalists have the right to communicate; their role is contested among their circles including professional journalists. The dichotomy between professional and amateur journalism is soaring because of ethical standards being raised by academics, journalists, and citizens themselves. Trust and reliability become another issue in the discursive constructs of news gathering and news reportage. But the role of citizen journalism through social media is unprecedented; though raw and unedited, it brings the message to its true essence as long as the content is honest and true.
For instance, the Philippines managed to experience people power ‘revolutions’ or protests using digital and online forms from text (SMS) messaging in EDSA II and in social media through facebook and twitter in Luneta’s Million People March. The Philippines has been used as a template in some other movements in other parts of the world including the Arab Spring, in which the world watched dissidents in the Middle East as Arab citizens used the power of social media as they organize together to dethrone their dictator-king.
Although, the lines separating culturally and socially held conventions have blurred; and people and the digital have become one in the new online estate – the sum of interactions, the network of communications among social actors have become porous.
Some would even accuse citizen journalism as a PR strategy. But the rise of information technology, the network of communications among social actors now takes place at a global stage and real-time state.
The power dynamic among social actors has now become more inclusive, at times more asymmetric. People now do politics across borders and beyond peoples. Its chilling effect in communication and how that translates to society’s formation of culture has produced a dual effect.
One on hand there are longstanding cultures that have become trenches of resistance and on the other is the homogenizing undercurrent, a vision of a cosmopolitan society, that comes with a global platform for interaction. The attempt to unify cultures online under commonalities and then singularities however has not fully manifested.
What has pervaded in this new order for the present time is the idea of fragmentation following historically different cultural identities. Supporting this fragile dynamic is the rise of both tolerance as well as individualism as more and more cultures interact. Differences are preserved in an environment that recognizes diversity and upholds fair representation.
Irresponsible citizen journalism can also escalate controversies and mistrust among citizen journalists. Therefore, there is a need to impose ethical standards to avoid abuses and misconstructions about the medium.
This leads to responsible citizen journalism. There is beauty in citizen journalism for it can actually benefit traditional journalism. With the many natural and human-induced or man-made disasters around the world, citizen journalists are able to document the scene better than actual news outlets using android and smart cellular phones. The viewers in YouTube and other social networks are first account witnesses to it and able to give insights to others from their point of view.
In the end, citizen journalism has positive and negative effects. Technology has definitely contributed to its proliferation because we are now connected as universal netizens in just few clicks. The world has become a global village and citizen journalism allows more opinion-based approach to solving or managing transnational issues; it has allowed vast opportunities for those who spread information, although trust and credibility is still debatable in this context; but generally it has empowered people and leveled off the playing field to all people to the right to communicate.
Citizen journalism may be a threat to national security
The media has long been considered as the “fourth estate” in Britain and France, the “fourth power” in Spain, and the “fourth branch of government” in the United States. It is in that power in which the press has the ability to give or withhold publicity and forms its informative capacity. With the dawn of the dotcom era, obviously wars has evolved asymmetrical – from territorial, naval, aerial, space to cyber which is called as the fifth domain.
Since warfare has become asymmetrical with the emergence of non-state actors and individuals, truth in information has also become subjective. A restriction sought to be justified on the ground of national security becomes legitimate if the genuine purpose is to protect interest unrelated to national security. For instance, to protect the government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing, concealing information about the functioning of its public institutions and entrench a particularly idea or to suppress industrial unrest are being practiced.
One classic example in which the fourth estate has challenged the fifth domain or cybersecurity in accessing freedom of information would be the ‘Wikileaks’ in 2009 where it posed a video of US military personnel’s jubilation after the launching of airstrike that killed a dozen of Iraqi civilians including two Reuters journalists.
That incident transgressed the Rules of Engagement in many war and it is certainly a human rights violation. The Pentagon had initially forbidden Reuters News Agency to obtain the video on the grounds that it would breach American national security. In that security saga, Wikileaks director Julian Assange leaked the video and the US has since released an arrest warrant for Mr Assange.
The appalling side of new media is the quiet emergence of hundreds of uncensored websites and social network sites that cling to rampant disinformation that may entice millions of netizens. Given the scenario that the information superhighway may trespass a country’s sovereignty, and that there is little regulation on the internet; hackers and irresponsible citizen journalists may mete out wide-scale reparations and malicious information damaging the integrity of the webspace.
On a bigger note, the fluidity of the cyberspace absorbed by the virtual regional and global community of citizen journalists could succumb to further tension and deep international debate, respective of each beliefs and creed, caused by escalating schism among conflicting political, social, and religious groups. This will create a new online forum for worldwide information warfare and a novel force in transforming today’s virtual geopolitical space in a fast deterritorializing world.
In the Philippines, one of the many reasons why the various authored bills on the Freedom of Information or FOI is not yet signed by the bicameral Congress because of the contention that it would pose threat to national security. Although there are exceptions on the type of information whether or not the documents are classified or unclassified to be disseminated, and this remains to be a battlefront for politicians and policy-makers.
Considering that this is related with citizen journalism, if by hypothetical instance that classified documents are obtained by so-called citizen journalists, how could we then contain the security of our country? Or what if security leaders themselves violate rights and privileges given to citizen journalists, what would be their stake?
The overall picture at the moment may be grim since there are no jurisdictional laws that would regulate the practice of social media vis a vis citizen journalism. Ethics on social media should be crafted and discussed to effectively combat online bashers under this emerging domain.
A community of citizen journalists
The voice of the people is the voice of God. This is affirmed in the age of the dotcom era when people host different ways to communicate factual message and information. Citizen journalists, documentary filmmakers, and reporters may be amateur using their mobile phones that are posted online, however, most contents are powerful and understood – that becomes citizen journalism is in good hands.
We have seen the ‘Occupy Movements’ in New York, Istanbul, HongKong and Manila – these incidents and more are definitely changing the way we look at the world today. We want social change and the technology has been in the forefront of cutting-edge change sandwich with sensible information. The creativity and innovative reporting is changing the cycle of traditional media.
There are also times when mainstream media were unable to reach areas of conflict and disaster-stricken areas or there is media blackout, citizen journalists are resourceful and alert in reporting first-hand these current events. They can gather and deliver the news instantly, sometimes raw, reality, and unedited as it may - as long as the content or message is rich. With only one click to social media it can become viral and informative to others – hence social media can become the fastest news online in the virtual community.
Furthermore, social media in the form of citizen journalism is sometimes used as an aid because of break news through trending topics. This may even be interesting for the online community in terms of online discussion and disseminating the information with netizens. The concept of ‘to easily get connected’ is a strong repertoire of the current century to make information a living thing and alive. Connectedness is the buzz word today that marks the current generation survives the social perils and challenges the world can offer.
On the other hand, there are personal biases when citizen journalists, given unwanted situations, they often become emotional than straightforwardly report the event and squarely deliver the news. Many professional journalists tend to criticize the poor quality and delivery of news written and produced by citizen journalists – and hence the latter are not seriously taken and become disadvantageous on their part. Some facts are even sensationalized, untrue, and no factual which create lessened credibility to some citizen journalists. Often than not, they can even be sued for libel cases in court.
In the end, citizen journalism should be taken seriously as an alternative form of media because it breaks away from the monopoly of traditional media. Ordinary citizens who want change can influence the society through their thoughts and ideas, news and stories, virtually spread in borderless and deterritorialized world of today and tomorrow. Along the way, ethical and legal issues must be addressed and any breach to national security should be safeguarded. The world has become a global village and because of citizen journalists every corners of the world shall have its own news and stories accessible to the public world because of unprecedented evolution of technologies shared with great content and information that makes the knowledge economy of the dotcom era more engaging and powerful.