An Empowered and Informed Citizenry: A Look into Citizen Journalism as a Platform for Democracy

By Frances Grace Damazo

Photo by Wilfred Iven

Photo by Wilfred Iven

THE RISE OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA

The introduction of the Internet has significantly changed the way news and information are disseminated. The internet has made information readily available and communicating much easier. The changing landscape has affected media in more ways than one. The rise of blogs which empowers people to voice out their opinions—is an example. Likewise, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook became instruments in information dissemination. It has enabled ordinary citizens to share and report newsworthy issues. Citizens are no longer passive audiences but they serve as instrumentalities in shaping the news. Because of the internet, citizens are now able to take on the role of a journalist and these technological innovations help redefine the role of mass media in our society. In line with keeping up with these technological advancements, various media companies have also incorporated new platforms. One of the ways mainstream media makes itself relevant is the introduction of citizen or participatory journalism.      

“Citizen or participatory journalism is defined as the act of the public to play an ‘active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information” (Bowman, et.al., 2003)

Whereas before there was a “we write, you read” (Deuze, 2003) dogma which emphasizes the dichotomy between journalists and the readers or audience, the emergence of citizen journalism has somehow blurred the line. The once passive audiences have taken a more active role in information dissemination. This begs the question: where is citizen journalism situated in contrast with mainstream media?

CITIZEN JOURNALISM

The term citizen journalism has amassed various meanings. One definition given to it is “any effort by people who are not trained or employed as professional journalists to publish news or information based on original observation, research, inquiry, analysis, or investigation.” (Glenn, 2007)  Without a doubt, the aids of the Internet and mobile phones have made this phenomenon feasible. Traditional media practitioners who consider themselves as the watchdogs of the government now shares this role with the citizens who have claimed the same responsibility. With a more engaged citizenry being one of the pillars of democracy, citizen journalism has emerged and continues to flourish.

Citizen Journalism in the country was initiated by one of the country’s biggest networks, ABS-CBN with their campaign Boto Mo, Ipatrol Mo: Ako ang Simula. This served as a watch-your-vote campaign during the midterm elections in 2007. Afterwards, it has evolved into Bayan Mo, Ipatrol Mo (BMPM) in which citizens, called ‘Citizen Patrollers’ take part in citizen journalism by sending pictures, videos, and stories to the network which would then be curated by the news editors. Maria Ressa, then head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, wrote:

“The idea for Boto Mo, Ipatrol Mo was simple: get the people to care and take action. It is people power with new technology! ...The sheer volume of messages received showed not only the public’s distrust for our institutions but also more importantly, it highlighted their hunger for change and their own individual battles for integrity.” (Ressa, 2009)           

In November 2009, GMA 7 followed suit with their YouScoop: Balita Mula sa Bayan, Para sa Bayan. The concept was the same with BMPM. An article from GMANews.TV website wrote, “armed with just their cell phones or digicams, citizen journalists- or non-professional news gatherers-can break stories and scoop even the TV networks by being the first and sometimes only one at the scene of an important event. This is also called ‘crowd-sourcing news.” (GMANews.TV, 2009)

These segments have become platforms for citizens to air issues that are not usually put into light before. Consequently, the proliferation of the Internet also gave rise to a new democratic space wherein people are more empowered and participative. It revolutionized the way news is gathered, produced, and presented.         

MEDIA: THEN AND NOW

To be able to say that there is innovation on the way news and information are handled nowadays, there is a need to review and look back at how the mass media operated before the emergence of Citizen Journalism. Shoemaker’s Gatekeeping Theory illustrated the process by which information from sources undergo scrutiny of different individuals, called gatekeepers, who determine which information would pass from each section to another that later on would be disseminated to the public. (Shoemaker, 1991 and Garcia, 2008) Thus, gatekeeping involves the act of editing or filtering which would eventually change the content of the news. It is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it becomes a “check and balance” mechanism that aims to improve media content and to ensure factual reporting. (Garcia, 2008, p. 13) Another theory called the Source Credibility Theory by Hovland, et.al. (1953) tells that a reader will more likely to believe the news or information if he/she deems the source credible and that audiences judge credibility through “expertness” and “trustworthiness”.  Audience perception, then, plays a very important role in defining credibility of news sources. Malcolm McCombs and Donald Shaw, proponents of the Agenda-Setting Theory had this to say on medias influence on the people:

“Audiences not only learn about public issues and other matters through media, they also learn how much importance to attach an issue or topic from the emphasis the mass media place upon it.”

Media before the advent of the internet defined clearly who was the audience or reader and who the journalist was. There are only a limited number of ways in which audiences, readers or listeners could voice out their opinions. Some of the ways are through writing a letter to the editor or calling TV networks.

The emergence of Citizen Journalism is inevitable with the birth of the Internet. One of the earliest forms of this new media phenomenon is blogging and it has become an outlet for people to be heard. It is likewise more interactive. It has diversified news stories. It ranges from typhoon-related stories to stories about government inefficiencies in various forms. Whereas television and radio impose strict airing time, the internet practically knows no bounds.

The onset of citizen journalism proved that the mainstream media is not the sole bearer of information. Citizens also possess the capacity to be ‘news-gatherers’ and could also function as ‘news reporters’. This has affected the way news is handled for information is not one-dimensional. The ‘once-audiences’ could now step up and discern whether or not the news is credible or factual. In fact, aside from bringing the news, they could create the news.

CITIZEN JOURNALISM: CRITICISMS

With ordinary citizens playing the part of journalists, it is foreseeable that it would encounter various criticisms. Indeed, this new phenomenon could threaten the established role of journalists as the credible source of news and information. Furthermore, with everyone having the power to produce news and other media content online, the veracity of such materials can be questionable. Criticisms are thrown on the basis of the accuracy of the news generated by citizen journalists because these could possibly appear one-sided. Citizen journalism is also not governed by the same editorial review and ethical rules mandated by traditional media regulatory bodies. Without the bounds of these media regulatory rules, information is also more in danger of being mishandled and falsely presented. Therefore, content appearing as news may generate unmediated discourse. Such content is also prone to come from malicious sources of information. The ease of going anonymous online also adds to the possibility of having biased opinions masked as news. This anonymity could also lead to the propagation of what could possibly be an ill-willed agenda.

CITIZEN JOURNALISM AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Photo from Pixabay

Photo from Pixabay

Citizen Journalism is a very important tool to reach out to a wider audience because the citizens themselves are the ones who contribute and even create the media content. The big networks know this for a fact.

The emergence of citizen journalism has created a power relationship between the established mainstream media and this new media phenomenon. And as is with every power relationship, there is a struggle. Control over information still remains with the mainstream media and the development of citizen journalism is a reaction to that power. To maintain their position and to keep up with their audiences, these news networks put up their own segments on citizen journalism because they have recognized the immensity of influence this type of journalism could bring. Because of this recognition, these news companies have taken control over ‘citizen journalism’—an attempt to mainstream this emerging trend.

These big institutions empower the citizens by asking them to send in information. These institutions then take possession over the “scoop”. Once it entered the system, the networks frame the news, manage the content and make the news reporters and anchors as the ‘main stars’ of the show. They do this because news networks or organizations have this fear of de-centering. These citizen journalists are then relegated to the role of audience once again.

Toraja (2012) in her thesis entitled Strangled Citizens: An Exploratory Study on the Empowerment of Citizen Journalists said that”

“the potential of having a full-grown citizen journalism is hindered by the creators themselves for they alienate the citizen journalist in the over-all process, from the initial pick-up of the news to its eventual broadcast.”

Some researchers share the same sentiment. Domingo (2008) found that the core journalistic role of the ‘gatekeeper’ who decides what makes news remained the monopoly of professionals. Hierarchy is still very evident when it comes to news delivery as citizen journalism remains a segment of shows. Its air time is also unmistakably shorter compared to other types of ‘news’. In fact, showbiz news is given its own show while citizen journalism doesn’t have a stand-alone show. Sometimes, stories or news from and by citizens have to be bumped off to give way for ‘bigger’ stories. In a study made by Gonda and Ortega (2012) , they found out that in the two hundred and twenty- nine 229 stories uploaded by citizen patrollers on ABS-CBN’s BMPM site, only 27 stories were aired. This is an indication that citizen journalism is still subject to scrutiny and power struggle with mainstream media.

THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF CITIZEN JOURNALISM

Citizen Journalism, by all accounts, is a product of technological changes. It serves to take advantage of the current avenue to further strengthen and improve information gathering and dissemination. In this environment, information abounds and it is no longer difficult to produce and publish. Because of this development in the media landscape, newsmakers had to redefine their role to adapt to participatory journalism. This phenomenon contributed to a lot of changes in society. Citizen Journalism played important roles in past crises. It has provided a minute-by-minute account of what’s happening. Citizen Journalism also enables citizens to become watchdogs in the electoral process. Aside from that, news could be gathered all around the Philippines and anywhere in the world because citizens could report incidents depending on their geographical locations. This could serve as a balance by refraining from news that are too Metro Manila-centric or Luzon-centric.

Indeed, the new forms of media – the internet and social media sites as well as mobile phones — changed the landscape in more ways than one. It made connecting with one another possible in real time because of its accessibility. It also serves as an aid in disseminating information. It provided a crack in the prevailing notion that it is only the mainstream media who have sole control over data. It provided and still is providing a space for a more democratic exchange.

This is not to say that that citizen journalism does not have its risks. It still has. There are still ethical issues, issues on accuracy, reliability, truthfulness and balance. But it is more important that benefits outweigh the costs and risks. Professor Louis Teodoro, Deputy Director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility reiterated that there are factors as to why citizen journalism is effective:

“[Citizen Journalists] are immune from much of the political and economic pressures that the journalists in old media are subject to. Of course, that can change, but at this point, they still can because anybody can open a website and upload. So they are immune from that, meaning there is a greater possibility on the part of citizen journalists to get information that’s accurate and meaningful…On the other hand, trained journalists have the advantage of the old media because it has developed all of these connections that are hampering the way they present the information. That’s a major advantage [of converging old and new media. 

Citizen Journalism is by no means an end to itself but it is a tool in enhancing the current form of our media. It serves as a way to having a more engaged and informed citizenry. Since there is no longer disconnect, citizens and the institution of media could work together in delivering news that is relevant, timely, factual, and more grounded in the citizens’ experience. Traditional media and new media could serve as each other’s checks and balances. Citizen Journalism helps create a more democratic space wherein people are free to voice out their opinions and generate discourses. It serves as a supplement to a sometimes ‘limiting’ mass media. It doesn’t just gather and broadcast news and information, citizen journalism also raises issues that before were not known or openly discussed.

Citizen journalism creates a heightened awareness of things happening around us and it showed that the landscape that is the mass media is indeed not impenetrable; that the mass media could and should belong to the people it serves: the masses.