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Mass media

“More depth”

by Eleonore von Bothmer

In depth

An Internet café in Delhi: nowadays, it is a lot easier for citizens to make themselves heard

An Internet café in Delhi: nowadays, it is a lot easier for citizens to make themselves heard

In countries where the freedom of expression is limited, the significance of media is completely different from firmly established democracies. “Citizen journalists” play an increasingly important role, as they often adopt a different perspective from media professionals. The Internet provides ample opportunities. [ By Eleonore von Bothmer ]

According to Werner D’Inka, member of the editorial board at the Frank­furter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z) in Germany, citizen journalism serves above all self-expression, and is therefore closer to literature than to quality press. “There is more to journalism than ‘storytelling’, for instance things like fact-checking. News should be produced by professional journalists, not by citizens,” D’Inka argues, adding that it is a “question of quality.”

Other media professionals beg to differ, saying that citizen journalists are needed precisely because the established media sometimes fail to convey relevant information and that in some regions of the world news supply is insufficient. This was widely agreed upon by the participants in an international panel discussion hosted by F.A.Z. and InWEnt in Berlin in April.

Crisis relevant

Astrid Kohl, director of InWEnt’s International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) spells it out clearly: “Especially for minorities in developing countries, citizen journalism can be a great advantage.” Everything depends on the political context. Joseph Ubalde from the Philippines mentions three conditions for participatory journalism to thrive:
– reliable Internet access,
– poor media coverage (underreporting in the media) and
– dissatisfaction with the government.

“The citizens wouldn’t participate if they weren’t dissatisfied,” Ubalde twittered during the event, where participants’ digital comments were projected onto a “twitter wall.” A colleague from Uganda agreed: “At times of crisis, the use of Facebook, SMS et cetera becomes more crucial.” This is particularly the case in regions without a free press.

The twitter wall exemplified what citizen journalism can mean for everyday life. Those whose voices would not have been heard at such events in the past can post comments immediately. Debate is no longer restricted to the professionals on the podium but open to all who are able and willing to contribute online. Admittedly, a laptop or smartphone with Internet access are a prerequisite.

Most experts no longer question the raison d’être and significance of citizen journalism. “Citizen journalism forces us to go back to the basis, to where journalism actually belongs – the topics that are important to ordinary people,” as one African participant put it.

It’s the same in India. “Citizen journalists report things that would never be covered by traditional media. This is a way to reduce prejudice,” says Ritu Kapur, executive producer of the “Citizen Journalist Show” of CNN-IBN India. “It is a good thing if people report things that are bothering them, because it usually affects a lot of other people too.”

A chance for peace

Saqib Riaz from the media and communication faculty at the University of Islamabad even sees a peacebuilding potential in this new type of journalism (also note Rousbeh Legatis’s essay, Tribune on p. 254). “Laypersons mostly don’t follow the official way of seeing things, and they try to report positive aspects too.” In spite of the cold war between India and Pakistan, citizen journalists, unlike the professional mass media, inform the public about good trends in the neighbouring country.

Riaz says his institute encourages citizens to participate in public debates. However, the media professor notes that there is a “credibility problem”. The material sent by laymen is only useful to a limited degree. “We never let citizen journalists publish anything on their own.”

Among experts, it is undisputed that citizen journalists ought to know and follow the ethical principles of the media world. Important journalistic duties are to pursue and tell the truth and not to trust the very first impression. “Things are not as simple as they may seem,” warns Riaz.

South African experience

Solana Larson knows that quality matters in citizen journalism. She is the managing editor of Global Voices. The motto of this international blogger community with over 200 members is: “The world is talking, are you listening?“

Naturally, there are “good and bad bloggers,” says Larson. But this is no different for media professionals. Citizen journalists disseminate information neglected by the conventional media, she says. As examples she mentions reports published by Mapuche people after the earthquake in Chile and “nomad green,” a website of Mongolian citizen journalists who tell about the impact of climate change on their daily lives.

Steven Lang, chief editor of the South African daily newspaper “Grocott’s Mail”, also emphasises the value of citizen journalism. Last year he established a newsroom where laymen journalists receive technical and practical training. He says from experience that citizen writers are often closer to the topics than professional writers. This enables “more depth”, exerts pressure on the authorities and even serves to strengthen the link between the paper and its readers.