Sunday, 5 May 2013

Citizen Journalism

Access to technology and the internet has made it possible for ordinary citizens to report or post eye-witness accounts of important events as they unfold. At the time when agitations against Hosni Mubarak were taking place in Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Government had imposed a blanket ban on the Media reporting of events, it was ordinary citizens who filmed the protests on their mobile phones and then somehow smuggled these across the border! According to Jay Rosen, “A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism”-21 May, 2012, Citizen Journalism takes place, “when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” In most cases, a mobile phone with a sensible camera, internet connection, and a YOUTUBE account will suffice as a “press" tool. The advantage of a citizen reporting an event lies in the possibility of its being fresh, original and piping hot! When a citizen goes beyond taking photographs on his cell phone and writes on a blog, it becomes even more participatory in nature. He or she is on the spot and is part of the event, unlike a professional reporter!
Citizen Journalism is, however, distinct from professional journalism, it is more avant-garde, sensational, unregulated, uncensored, and more likely to touch a raw nerve in the target audience. The existence of a multitude of social networking sites on the internet has also given a boost to this “art-brute” form of reporting by the 'man on the street'. Citizen journalism has a powerful ability to appeal to mass sentiment and its popularity has meant that today blogging and citizen journalism are presenting an ever growing challenge to formal and institutionalized journalism. However, the lack of regulation and censorship could mean that what is posted by ordinary citizens might violate the ethics of reporting, instigate communal tensions in a country like India, or inflame public opinion against the Government as is the case in a country like Syria.
Institutionalized journalism, however, continues to have its weaknesses. It is a known fact that a good dinner with gifts thrown in might attract a favorable report, while a cold shoulder might result in an unfavorable report. In many cases, the notes taken by an accredited journalist would be developed overnight into a report which would then be taken to the Editor for further editing and changes in order to favor or disfavor a person or a group of people being covered in the report. In many cases, such reports lack the zest or the bite of fresh news items posted by ordinary citizens in the form of tweets or writeups and comments on a social networking site like Facebook. Technology has surely empowered the common man to such an extent that he or she is able to develop an interesting report on an event accompanied with photographs on a blog or social networking site.
Citizen Journalism might however not always be about political issues. It could be a write-up on environmental issues such as the poor state of National Parks poor up-keep of animal and bird sanctuaries including in some cases the poor state of rivers in the country like the Yamuna River. In many cases, such reports by alert citizens have prompted pro-active action by Governments and Non-Governmental Organisations. Photographs taken of dried river beds, effluent choked rivers, polluting smoke-stacks of industries, blatant violations of traffic rules, and jumping of red lights have made a difference.
Citizen Journalism has had a long history, especially in the West. In America after journalists themselves began to question their own predictability of their coverage of the U.S. Presidential elections in 1988. At that time, the advent of the Citizen Journalist movement was a countermeasure to an eroding trust in institutionalized media and a general sense of disillusionment with the polity. In the recent past, the Jasmine Revolution which forced the President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of his seat and the Arab-Spring revolution all saw the rise of active Citizen Journalism that exposed corrupt Governments and gave voice to the common man’s disenchantment with a dictatorial system of governance. It is not surprising to see a proliferation of views from diverse people, starting from the grass-root levels and going on to bureaucrats in the world where technology has empowered the common man. If Mubarak was ousted from his seat, it was partly because of the perception of the common man and what he posted on social networking sites. Bloggers and those who tweeted endlessly from their phones about the situation on ground zero made a great contribution to the turn of events in Egypt. In Libya too, the overturning of the dynasty of the “Desert Fox”, Gaddafi, was because of the angst of the common man, the public discontent finding expression in the form of blogs, tweets, and updates on social networking sites. In India, the big brother revolution and agitation for the Lokpal bill, spearheaded by Anna Hazare was covered by Citizen Journalists, people who had hopes for better and cleaner governance. The numerous demonstrations, most of them peaceful, were lead by Anna Hazare. These demonstrations were mention in blogs and tweets. In any case, most accomplished journalists are also accomplished bloggers and tweeters. There is, therefore, a gray area which is shared by accredited journalists and those who have had no training in Journalism. Growing public discontent and an increasing demand for change in the social fabric have ensured that the voice of the citizen journalist is heard loud and clear. Citizen journalism is here to stay and will continue to be heard for a long time to come unless governments evolve a system to “gag the voice of the common man”!

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