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07.11.2008 General News

Citizen Journalism - I Will Tell It The Way I See It

She had walked into the newsroom very calmly, at least that was the way I saw it from where I sat at the head of the news desk. I had seen the diminutive woman walk in very composed but when she started talking, she was highly agitated, almost distraught.

She had a great concern which in her view, needed to be shared and the problem solved as early as practicable.

The dance forms at the time — crack, electric boogie, shock, butterfly, etc. — in her view were very injurious to the health of particularly children who, oblivious of the threat to themselves, were enjoying the vogue.

 

Her belief was that the jerky movements, body twisting, the 'cracking' of their muscles and the pirouette, as they tried to outdo one another in the craze of the time, caused some organs in the abdomen to be dislodged and that was what was causing abdominal pains and other health problems among children.

Madam, who introduced herself as the leader of a group of women bakers in one of the regions and a concerned grandmother, had travelled that morning to the Daily Graphic newsroom in Accra and wanted her 'concern' published so that parents and guardians would be notified and for the authorities in particular to tackle the issue.

Much as I tried, and courteously too, to convince her that the Daily Graphic could not publish her concern, she would not take no for an answer so ultimately, I had to tell her that what she had conceived was rather absurd and that publishing it would be tantamount to insulting the intelligence of readers.

 

 It worked, for she got very angry and left.

This happened years ago but today, across the globe, people with their own stories, experiences and concerns to share, some well researched, others well documented and highly useful and some, nearly as absurd as Madam's belief that some dances could cause body organs to be dislodged, do not need conventional or traditional journalism as an intermediary to do so.

Over the past few years, worldwide, there has been a surge in the use of new media by ordinary people, especially those based on the worldwide web.

 

The emergence of social networking websites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and the ubiquitous use of instant messaging technologies such as skype and yahoo as well as blogging, no longer restricts anybody with some information to share, from doing so.

There are even news sites, the greater part of whose content is generated by ordinary citizens.

 

 oh MyNews is a South Korean online newspaper based on the motto that “every citizen is a reporter” and, accordingly, 80 per cent of its content comes from ordinary citizens around the world.

Some media houses have encouraged their readers or audiences to contribute to major stories by sending their photographs, videos and audio clips.

 

While the practice is not yet in Ghana, it is common for most websites originating from this country to provide space for interested visitors to comment or give their views on stories and in some cases, pictures.

 

Calling into live radio programmes in Ghana is now very common.

 

It is also common knowledge that for radio in particular and television in Ghana, a chunk of their hourly news segment and breaking news are based on information provided by ordinary people who do not know what journalism really entails but who nonetheless believe strongly that whatever information they have must be shared and this can best be done when they relay such information to a media house for simultaneous broadcast.

Thus, currently members of the public do not only consume media but are also able to generate and even publish it.

 

In effect, they now have both the right to access information produced by journalists and the right to free expression in practical form. This is what is termed Citizen Journalism or Social Journalism.

Citizen Journalism comes in the form of personal blogs, photos or video from personal mobile cameras, local news written by people in the local community or comments made on professionally produced news.

 

It is in a way, ordinary citizens play the role of professional journalists.

This alternative media was the subject of discussion at the 12th edition of the Highway Africa Conference, on the theme: “Citizen Journalism, Journalism For Citizens”, which took place at the Rhodes University in Grahams Town, South Africa, from September 8 to 10, 2008.

 

 The conference, an annual event, provides a platform for debating issues and challenges faced by the continent's media practitioners.

And indeed in a series of presentations made by seasoned professionals at an array of lectures and roundtable discussions, one thing became clear, that the line between audiences and producers of news is getting thinner.

Professor Dan Gillmor, Director of the Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, a guest speaker at the conference, drummed it home when he stated that readers were no longer content with being at the receiving end of the news.

“These readers turned reporters are publishing in real time to a worldwide audience via the Internet,” stated Gillmor, also author of the book “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People”.

While this is becoming increasingly obvious, the situation is that some people, particularly diehard journalists, do not agree that the great use, to which people are currently putting information technology, constitutes journalism practice in any manner.

 

At best, these journalists define Citizen Journalism variously as gossip by ordinary citizens, the desire of some people to have fun with content of news and an attempt by those who contend that journalism is no profession, to further advance their argument.

They argue that journalism as a conventional practice has a ready audience to whom news is disseminated spontaneously.

 

 Among other things, professional journalists are regulated by a code of ethics and by training and practice; journalists develop skills that enable them to objectively analyse issues and events.

In addition to these, newsrooms have a chain of experienced journalists (page editors, news editors, sub editors etc), not to talk about ancillary staff, all of whom in diverse ways, ensure that what is published is near perfect in many respects.

They also contend that it is simply not right for anybody to juxtapose conventional journalism and Citizen Journalism because the former is an age-old practice, tried and tested while the latter is emerging on the wings of advancement in information technology.

Whatever the arguments for and against Citizen Journalism or Social Journalism, the fact cannot be denied that it gives a voice to the voiceless, allows people to tell their own stories and provides freedom from the conventional media role of gate-keeping.

 

It also allows ordinary people the freedom to share their thoughts and concerns with whoever cares to listen.

In September this year, the international news media was awash with the story of a Finnish student who shot 10 people dead at his college and later turned the gun on himself. Matti Juhani Saari, in his early twenties and a student of a vocational college in Kauhajoki, had posted a video of himself firing a gun on his website the previous week and even though the police had interviewed him, they decided that they did not have enough evidence to revoke his licence.

The Daily Graphic of September 24, 2008, which also published the news, recalled a similar incident in November 2007, in which eight people and the gunman died in another school attack in Tuusula, Finland.

 

The Daily Graphic story said the gunman, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, had posted a video on YouTube as a preview of his attack, pledging to 'eliminate' those he saw as unfit.

These certainly were thoughts shared but, like the trite format that the emerging media is being reduced to by some people, the first instance was given no attention at all while the second was given little attention but in both cases, society was the loser — painful loss of innocent lives.

The debate no doubt will continue as to whether the emerging greater involvement of ordinary people in agenda setting in newsrooms, news gathering and the unbridled publication of information by all manner of people by means of the worldwide-web, could in any way be defined as a form of journalism or not.

The debate will also continue as to whether the development will ultimately affect the work of the respected 'nosey-parkers' across the globe, whom society has for many years assigned the responsibility to deliver the news.

 

 But even as the argument rages, it would be good to know the thoughts of a number of professional journalists, and others on the issue.

Dan Gillmor maintains that what is happening is a shift from what had been happening all along.

 

 To him, the consumer of news is now being turned into a creator but contends that what is emerging cannot replace what is there.

 

It can only add to it, he states.

Professor Gillmor, however, points out that communication also means to listen and not to do all the talking and this is what Citizen Journalism has done.

Editor of the Sunday Independent newspaper of South Africa, Jovial Rantao, argues that in spite of all that has changed what has not changed is conventional journalism practice.

 

“The great pillars of the profession remain and the responsibilities of a journalist have not changed.” Nonetheless, Rantao cautions that the print media needs to quickly adapt to the fast developing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) because, as he puts it, “by the time your paper comes out with the news, radio is already out with it.”

Little wonder then that within a matter of seven months over a 1000 positions of journalists have been cut in the United States!

Professor Guy Berger, Head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies of Rhodes University, South Africa, points out that currently information is not a scarce commodity.

 

What is scarce is human attention and that the challenge for the print media is that content is often devalued by the supply of online content which includes those generated by users.

He also draws attention to the fact that content is now created by people who do not care if they get paid or not.

Professor Berger, for his part, says that initially, newspapers saw the web as strange, then as a source of information and subsequently as subversive. Now newspapers see the web as strategic and that it could become a saviour, he adds, and cautions that this is not the time for any journalist to be 'digital dozy'.

Chris Kabwato, Director of Highway Africa, puts it this way: “To do quality journalism in a rapidly changing world we need the tools that enable us to respond with speed and precision.

 

Digital technologies give us an opportunity to do just that – to access a virtual library at the touch of a button, to send a story in the wink of an eye.

 

And it can't be overemphasised that for all journalists, change is inevitable, progress is optional and the future is now.”

For Amina Frense, a broadcast media practitioner, also a founding and council member of the South African Editors Forum, the 5Ws and H have been demystified.

 

Now there is another dimension. The situation, she said, had forced the big media houses to develop niche products and cited the example of CNN which had come out with “Media Without Borders”.

The concern as shared by all is whether Citizen Journalism, Social Journalism or whatever anybody chooses to call it, can be tamed, regulated and tracked, for it has come to stay.

 

The truth of the matter is that people will want to tell their own stories. For others, their passion is to be the first to tell the tale and now they have the means.

 

By Abigail Bonsu,

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