The emergence of citizen journalism has prompted the journalism field and scholars to readdress what constitutes journalism and who is a journalist. Citizen journalists have disrupted news-media ecosystems by challenging the veracity and representativeness of information flowing from mainstream news-media newsrooms. However, the controversy related to the desired level of citizen involvement in the news process is a historical debate that began before the citizen-journalism phenomenon. As early as the 1920s, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman and American philosopher John Dewey debated the role of journalism in democracy, including the extent that the public should participate in the news-gathering and production processes.
This questioning of citizen involvement in news reemerged as an issue with the citizen journalism phenomenon around the late 1990s. People with no news-media organizational ties have taken advantage of the convenience and low cost of social computing technologies by publishing their own stories and content. These people are referred to as citizen journalists. Scholars have assessed the quality and credibility of citizen-journalism content, finding that citizen journalists have performed well on several standards of traditional news-content quality. Levels of quality differ dependent upon citizen journalists’ goals and motivations, such as serving the public interest, increasing self-status, or expressing their creative selves.
As it is an emerging area of study, unarticulated theoretical boundaries of citizen journalism exist. Citizen-journalism publications emphasize community over conflict, advocacy over objectivity, and interpretation over fact-based reporting. In general, citizen journalists have historically acted when existing news-media journalists were not fully meeting their community’s informational needs. Scholars, however, vary in how they label citizen journalists and how they conceptually and empirically define citizen journalism. For example, researchers have shifted their definitional focus on citizen journalists from one of active agents of democratic change to people who create a piece of news content. The mapping of the citizen-journalism literature revealed four types of citizen journalists based on their levels of editorial control and contribution type: (1) participatory, (2) para, (3) news-media watchdog, and (4) community. Taken together, these concepts describe the breadth of citizen-journalist types. For those of us interested in journalism studies, a more targeted approach in the field of citizen journalism can help us build community around scholarship, understand citizen journalists’ contributions to society and practice, and create a more a stable foundation of knowledge concerning people who create and comment on news content.
Hans Meyer and Burton Speakman
It is all too common to think of community journalism as being like all other types of journalism, just on a smaller scale. With the growth of the Internet and virtual community, this form of journalism cannot be distinguished solely by circulation size or geographic delineations.
Within the larger journalism research sphere, community journalism remains underrepresented, even though the majority of publications in the United States can be classified as community journals, and throughout the world, small publications, both in print and online are commanding respect. If community media outlets are defined as having a circulation of lower than 50,000, then there are 7,184 community daily or weekly newspapers in the U.S. compared to only 4 publications with circulations of more than 500,000. Worldwide, data cannot be as easily condensed into percentages, but it is reasonable to think the figures are similar. Yet, media research typically focuses on the work and attitudes of the elites, i.e. the larger and best-known publications.
Existing research on community journalism has identified key distinctions between community journalism and other types. First, community media focus on information connected to everyday life, and second, its media members tend to develop a closer, more intimate connection to the community they serve.
The idea of closeness began with early research into the idea of community itself. Community as a concept revolves around emotional connection and membership. The two necessary elements for community formation are for a group of people to have something in common, and something that differentiates them from other groups.
Community media build upon these concepts to give communities a voice. The audience for community news is often connected by an interest in, and emotional attachment to, a geographic area, which represents one form of community or a specific viewpoint, interest, or way of thinking which often represents virtual community. Both groups need journalists, who provide factual information on the community and enable and support strong community ties. Community journalists can also help build place attachment and create third places for community members to congregate and interact socially in.
For millennia, the idea that rituals create a shared and conventional world of human sociality has been commonplace. From common rites of passage that exist around the world in various forms (weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies) to patterned actions that seem familiar only to members of the in-group (secret initiations, organizational routines), the voluntary performance of ritual encourages people to participate and engage meaningfully in different spheres of society. While attention to the concept was originally the purview of anthropology, sociology, and history, many other academic disciplines have since turned to ritual as a “window” on the cultural dynamics by which people make and remake their worlds. In terms of journalism studies in particular, the concept of ritual has been harnessed by scholars looking to understand the symbolic power of media to direct public attention, define issues and groups, and cause social cohesion or dissolution. Media rituals performed in and through news coverage indicate social norms, common and conflicting values, and different ways of being “in the world.” The idea of ritual in journalism is accordingly related to discussions around the societal power of journalism as an institution, the ceremonial aspects of news coverage (especially around elite persons and extraordinary “media events”), and the different techniques journalists use to “make the news” and “construct reality.” Journalism does more than merely cover events or chronicle history—it provides a mediated space for audiences and publics that both allows and extends rituals that can unite, challenge, and affect society.