US President Harry S. Truman said “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know”.Citizen Journalism itself is ‘nothing new’, its roots are entangled in every major historical event where the populace ‘rose up against oppressors’, defied the status quo, and sought to educate the masses through unorthodox means.
In The Iliad, Homer wrote that ‘to speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right, in peace, in war, in council and in fight’, and Victorian Britain gives a good early example of ‘citizen journalism’ with the establishment of ‘Speakers Corner’ in Hyde Park, which was born out of the struggle for civil liberties for the lower classes.
For over a century, Speakers Corner became the ‘verbal viral’ platform for proselytising, preaching, and expressions of dissent. A place which has drawn notable speakers from George Orwell to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin to Marcus Garvey.
The pamphleteers of the American Revolution were the citizen journalists of their day, and throughout the 19th century amateur writers founded newspapers which were produced to bring news, gossip and stories to the communities they served. Citizens disseminated the news.
While professional journalism evolved with the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in 14404, it co-existed with publications by citizens. For as long as there has been journalism, there has been citizen journalism. When it comes to news, citizen journalism is, in fact, nothing new. But that’s all history – at least in terms of the modern day concept of ‘citizen journalism’, where the advent of new technologies, web-based platforms and social media, has given ‘citizen journalism’ a modern, more immediate impetus.
Anyone with a smart phone and an internet connection now has the capacity to be a publisher – from ‘live streaming’ themselves at concerts and events, to videoing dangerous, history changing, protests and tweeting ‘on the ground’ updates of breaking political upheaval before mainstream journalists have had time to fire up the newswires.
Since the mid-1990’s the web has offered those who believe their voices have been disenfranchised a platform of expression. The blogosphere erupted networks of opinion – an alternative to what many felt were the overly censored traditional media outlets like newspapers, radio and television. Some still view blogging, not as any form of journalism, more of show-off soap-boxing. However, it has carved out it’s own specific niche on the web, and vies for advertising revenues alongside mainstream media as more and more bloggers monetise their opinions and blog in a ‘professional’ capacity.
Arianna Huffington’s ‘Huffington Post’ is an example of a news aggregator and blog which has brought the humble ‘weblog’ to sensational financial success, having been bought by AOL for $315 million in February 2011. The following year it became the first commercially run digital media enterprise to win journalisms highest award, the Pulitzer prize.
Since 2011 the multitude of ‘options’ for citizen journalism has exponentially grown along with the number of platforms available, and the absolute explosion in mobile technologies, apps, improved wifi and internet access and mobile connectivity.
“People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true.” – Lewis H. Lapham
There is no doubt that much citizen journalism, and many main news stories have broken on social networks. Long before a newspaper can get ‘boots on the ground’, a story has played out on Twitter with ‘live tweeting’ of international events; videos uploaded to Youtube are ‘viral’ and reach a larger audience before a traditional television network can mobilise and get staff to locations.
Even when the traditional media arrive, they do so after the event, and cannot provide that exciting ‘play on play’ action, demanded by an ‘in the moment’ socially engaged audience. Traditional media analysis of an event after the fact doesn’t have the traction of the ‘action movie’ emotional response of watching it unfold.
However, this traditional media post-event analysis, fact checking, data mining, and verification of events frames the truth of scenarios, gives nuance and context, and provides a rounder news package which most would arguably cite as unbiased, reliable and true.
At the same time, those who viewed the footage of events as they broke, are likely to have formed their opinion on the citizen journalism presented to them as it unfolded, and will have moved on to ‘the next big thing’ in their social networks, without reading the ‘post match analysis’ proffered by the main stream media.
“Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.” – Ben Hecht
There are currently 2.34 billion people worldwide on social networks, with that number due to grow to 2.95 billion by the end of 2020. To make a domestic reference to the influence of mobile technologies, in 2015 Ireland had the highest penetration of mobile phone use for internet connectivity in Europe.
At its noblest “citizen journalism” is the means whereby anyone who wants to actively lend their “two cents worth” to vociferous public debate can do so. Their voice, in a digital realm, can be magnified to a larger populace. Much in the same way as those citizen journalists of old, standing on a soap box at Speakers Corner, relied on people to visit their physical platform, they rely on those who will turn up (albeit through clicks) in their digital space.
There are huge civic rewards in getting their story out, providing opinion not ransomed by commercial interests, and offering useful and valid knowledge in a wide – and when we we are talking about digital a global – domain to inform people for the benefit of the greater good. But, “Citizen Journalism” – like all journalism – is not always noble, altruistic or benign.
“Accuracy to a newspaper is what virtue is to a lady; but a newspaper can always print a retraction.” – Adlai Stevenson
Katherine Viner, the editor in chief of Guardian News and Media, recently wrote an article about the disruption technology has had on mainstream media and ‘the truth’. A salacious story about former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron and an alleged incident with a pigs head at a college ‘frat’ party gained legs on Twitter, where it was ‘lifted’ by a ‘red top’ tabloid, and subsequently disseminated across the world at wildfire speed as a piece of schoolboy sniggering click-bait.
While the story was the entertainment for the nation for a day or two, resulting in memes, lampooning and conjecture, it’s basis was never verified and was an unsupported anonymous ‘tit bit’ from a biography. Nevertheless, the ‘citizens’ which fuelled the viral nature of this politician shaming ‘news’ nugget had no ethical compunction towards spreading ‘truth’ over ‘supposition’.
In the article Viner says: “Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago). A dubious story about Cameron and a pig appears in a tabloid one morning, and by noon, it has flown around the world on social media and turned up in trusted news sources everywhere. This may seem like a small matter, but its consequences are enormous.”
“In journalism, there has always been a tension between getting it first and getting it right.” – Ellen Goodman
Citizen Journalism – Often Good, Sometimes Bad, Increasingly Ugly
To fully understand ‘Citizen Journalism’, and weigh up its relevance (and threat) to the news industry it is important to look at recent examples – both good and bad – that have had an impact on the news agendas of the day.
Arab Spring: In 2011 “Citizen Journalism” made it’s boldest statement with the Arab Spring, where state-controlled outlets were challenged by citizens from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Syria who took it upon themselves to highlight the popular protests in their countries which were, by and large, ignored by the propaganda driven main stream. At the time their footage was arguably the most honest, reliable and trustworthy account of what was happening on their streets.
A year after the Arab Spring the United States Institute of Peace carried out an analysis of bit.ly (shortened URLs allowing longer articles to be shared on Twitter) links which were digitally spread through social platforms during that period. Their conclusion was that the social media impact on the Arab Spring was much more than a complement to the protesting on the streets, it was a means of garnering a global focus for the unrest in the region. They concluded: “New [or social] media outlets that use bit.ly links are more likely to spread information outside of the region than inside it, acting like a megaphone more than a rallying cry.”
The ongoing aftermath from the Arab Spring has had its difficulties, with many bloggers suspected of being aligned to political parties. Indeed, now many Arab audiences have a choice between state controlled media, and ‘a cacophony of online voices with little means to discern the truth’.
Governments have also submerged themselves into the blogosphere, and a cursory glance at the #Syria hashtag on Twitter can see a web-based bombardment. Bahraini journalist Amira Al Hussaini described these Government funded contributors as ‘e-armies, online mercenaries’ .
The truth is out there. Easily identifying it remains a problem.
First Citizen journalism: Scooping the newswires is not something you normally equate with those in high office. But in 2012 Barack Obama became the ‘First Citizen’ of citizen journalism when he announced his win of the 2012 Presidential election on Twitter at 11.14 pm ET (USA). The tweet ‘Four More Years’ with an image of POTUS hugging wife, Michelle Obama, made twitter history, knocking Justin Bieber off the title holder podium for ‘Most retweeted tweet’.
The simple three word tweet on the micro-blogging site reached multiple millions of users within minutes – a reach that mainstream media organs could never hope to achieve.
Coming from the POTUS’ account, the veracity of this piece of ‘citizen journalism’ was unquestionable.
Water water everywhere – will citizen journalism sink?: In the last two years in Ireland there has been a rise in public protest – most notably, but not solely (the Corofin eviction 2016 for example) – relating to Irish Water protests. It became an election issue, one still very much front and centre of the political agenda.
With relative instability on the 2016 Irish political landscape the matter of charging for water became, and remains, a contentious and volatile issue. To that end there has been a proliferation of videos on YouTube and other mobile video upload sites, where protestors have challenged Irish Water employed contractors as they have gone about the insertion of meters outside homes across Ireland, many featuring members of An Garda Siochana in attendance.
With the ‘flying picket’ nature of these protests – where party affiliated ‘agitators’ satellite themselves to areas where ‘support’ is requested (often through social media calls to action) – the nature of these protests and the subsequent viral videos are often called into question, purely by the highly emotive, sometimes aggressive, and usually ‘one-sided’ nature of the content shown.
Can citizen journalism be considered reliable if presented from a subjective source? Without ‘full facts’ and ‘complete disclosure’ of all agendas on the table can emotive viral video content be a reliable reflection of reality?
“A lot of people, myself included, are excited about blogging and stuff like that, citizen journalism, but I do remind people that no matter how excited we are, there’s no substitute for professional writing, no substitute for professional editing, and no substitute for professional fact-checking.” – Craig Newmark
Live streaming death: The recent introduction by Facebook of live streaming has presented yet another ‘citizen journalism’ opportunity, although one which has some moral and ethical issues.
An example of the ‘ugly truth’ came July 2016 when Minnesota woman Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to share the immediate aftermath of the fatal police shooting of her fiancé Philando Castile. As she commentated on events in the passenger seat of the car they were traveling in, Castille fought for his life, while Reynolds four year old daughter sat in the back seat.
The video had been viewed 2.5 million times before being temporarily removed by Facebook. It was later reinstated with a warning that it contained graphic content. The live stream clip has had 5 million viewers to date, and very much played a part in the #BlackLivesMatter political narrative that underscored the United States Presidential election campaign.
Storyful – The Value Proposition
In 2010 Mark Little took a leap of faith. Leaving his pensionable job with Irish broadcaster RTE, where he was appointed as their first Washington correspondent in 1995 and was Prime Time host prior to his departure in 2009, he started Storyful – an independent news verification business, staffed by professional journalists.
His business model was to mine social networks for ‘citizen journalism’ uploaded material, and provide the fact-checking which would establish the veracity and bona fides of the content. This Storyful verified content could then confidently be used by traditional news networks, under license. His model has been hailed as “one of the great success stories in the new business of social journalism”.
Little had identified the need for authenticity. His journalistic instinct was to mine for naked truth amid the noise. And while his business model was a ground-breaking shift towards providing veracity for the viral clip, he has never viewed himself as a digital entrepreneur.
“In my professional life I’m a journalist. In a broader sense I’m a storyteller, creating a business based on storytelling. I would never describe myself as an entrepreneur. A lot of entrepreneurs are assholes,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Irish Times.
How Storyful works: “Making sense of social” is the mantra for Storyful. Its mission statement states that “Storyful combines proprietary technology and expert journalism into a human algorithm. This game-changing combination gives us the ability to discover, verify, acquire and deliver the most valuable real-time content the social web has to offer.”
The essence of Storyful lies with its staff, the majority of whom are ‘veterans’ of global organisations like the BBC, Reuters, CNN and ABC News in Australia. These trained, skilled, professional journalists – who are based across the globe with multi-lingual skills in their various regions – can quickly verify sources of content through their own contacts and often their own proximity to breaking news.
Some verification methods of user uploaded content also include: Engagement with users who share video content to identify originator;Translation of content to add context Review of uploader’s social footprint to ascertain if they have shared credible content previously; Use of Google street view/maps/satellite imagery to verify locations; Consultation with news sources on the ground to confirm events in videos happened as portrayed (and were not staged); Examination of weather and landscape in videos to see if they match facts on the ground.
Storyful – monetising the truth: Storyful do not sell content, they verify it. No commission is made on the content discovered, but they do request permissions from ‘citizen journalists’ to use their content on behalf of their clients. Their clients are news and media organisations that subscribe to Storyful.
The cost of a Storyful subscription varies based on ‘number of users, level of integration and access to 24/7 editorial support’. The ownership rights of the content uploaded by the ‘citizen journalist’ remains with the creator. Storyful find the content, clear it for veracity, and provide contact and credit information to their clients so they can communicate with the content owners and make the necessary payment, if required.
Clients and partners of Storyful include some of the top news organisations and social networks globally. Examples of clients include ABC News in both the United States and Australia, Channel 4 News (UK), France 24, Reuters, Bloomberg and the New York Times. They partner with YouTube on CitizenTube, human rights and political projects, and have worked with Google on elections and crisis response.
Little makes out large: In December 2013 the gamble that Mark Little took in leaving RTE to set up Storyful paid off handsomely when he sold the company to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp organization for a reported €18m.
The deal is thought to have earned Little a personal pre-tax gain of €6m, while this was also a pay day for Storyful investors including former Hostelworld owner, Ray Nolan, ‘Dragons Den’ star Sean O’Sullivan, Enterprise Ireland and the venture capital group ACT.
The decision to sell was based on a desire to grow the concept globally, before competitors arrived with a similar business model. In an interview with the Irish Independent the day after the deal, Little said: “So we wanted to find a partner who could help us turn from a small Irish scrappy start-up to a global force, as quickly as we could. This is the right time for a digital journalism outlet and if we had waited six months or a year somebody else would have come along to compete against us.’
There was also the consideration that prior to the sale the company had shouldered serious losses. Accounts filed with the Companies Registration Office showed how the company had experienced ‘a 10 fold increase in losses in three years’ prior to the sale.‘
Losses had grown from just under €364,000 in 2010 to over €3m in 2012, and Little had to make staff redundant in the previous six months. The company had started to turn a profit in the months prior to the sale though, and his ambition to monetise social media had become a viable business model.
In the immediate aftermath of the sale Mark Little stayed on with Storyful as it’s chief executive, with David Clinch remaining as executive editor. News Corp senior vice president for video, Rahul Chopra joined the management team as chief revenue officer.
A year after the acquisition Little abdicated the role of CEO to Chopra, and in June of 2015 he left the company, making the announcement on a self-penned blog on the Storyful site – an example of citizen journalism itself, perhaps.
He expanded on his decision in an article in the Irish Times where he said: “Storyful was an unlikely story from the beginning. I founded the company because I wanted to prove that the eternal values of quality journalism mattered more than ever in the age of social media. And I was determined to prove that the very best journalism is still a great business model.”
Citizen Journalism – Here, there, everywhere
Citizen journalism is all pervasive. Anyone connected to a social network cannot avoid it daily as viral videos whiz up and down the Facebook Timeline and Twitterers break stories of all varying degrees of importance every minute of the day from every corner of the globe.
Even those not connected to ‘social’ find citizen journalism ‘tweets of the day’, ‘best of the internet’ columns etc. in their traditional newspapers, while there are whole television programmes like Channel 4’s ‘RudeTube’ which are solely dedicated to the viral funny videos that have taken the ‘net by storm in any given week. That broadcaster has also married social media ‘lifestyle citizen journalism’ with reality TV to provide content like The ‘Rich Kids of Instagram’.
“With technology and social media and citizen journalism, every rock that used to go unturned is now being flipped, lit and put on TV.” – LZ Granderson Social Network News
Increasingly people are abandoning main stream media and are sourcing their news on social networks – the realm where citizen journalism has found it’s natural home.
In May 2016 the American based, Pew Research Centre recorded that a majority of US adults (62%) got their news on social media, with 18% of those surveyed saying they did so often. The study, conducted in association with the John S. and James L. Knight. Foundation, saw this number had grown from 49% of adults in 2012.
The report looked at the main social networks, and interestingly looked at the networks and users, and how active and passive they were in their news habits. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, they found were ‘more likely to get their news online mostly by chance, when they are online doing other things’. Users of Reddit, Twitter and LinkedIn were as likely to seek out news online themselves as happen upon it.
Citizen journalism flourishes in an environment where readers ‘happen upon’ the news, rather than those who actively go to seek out news content, as they are more likely to navigate to main stream media sites.
Citizen journalism posted on social media is spread through online ‘word of mouth’ – shares on Facebook, retweets on Twitter, likes on Instagram.
Facebook: Facebook is ‘Citizen Journalism’. Every user uploads content, whether it’s an activist making a critical post about some political event, or a frustrated driver giving information of a traffic jam in their area. The news value or ‘weight’ of the story is irrelevant. It’s all news to someone, and where information is garnered from a trusted source (in these instances often a family member, or a friend) on a broadcasting network, it falls under the umbrella of ‘citizen journalism’.
Twitter: Twitter is a different entity to Facebook in terms of Citizen Journalism in that the majority of people on Twitter connect with other users, the majority of whom they don’t know. The familiarity of the friends and family who post on Facebook adds validity in the mind of the user, as they see these sources as trustworthy in their daily lives. This may not be the case, but nevertheless, the user is more likely to believe something shared by someone they know in real life.
However, Twitter adds a new dynamic in that users follow hashtags of interest to them, and while they may see micro-blogging tweets from citizen journalists and uncorroborated sources, these are often breaking news stories.
Professional journalists mine trending Twitter hashtags to find stories which they then independently validate (or engage the services of Storyful to validate) and those stories then find themselves as a basis for mainstream media news stories. 74% of daily users on Twitter do so to find news.
Snapchat/Instagram: A 10 second (maximum) snap may not seem a large window to convey a ‘Citizen Journalism’ message, but the brevity of Snapchat is possibly its great draw, particularly amid the younger generation to whom it appeals.
Snapchat has over 100 million active daily users, and 60% of smartphone users aged between 13 and 34 in the USA are active on the platform. There are more than two billion video views today. The content may be brief, but this is an active not passive audience, and a lot of eyes fall upon the user content uploaded.
Instagram equally appeals to a younger dynamic, allowing pretty pictures shared under a veil of vibrant and dynamic filters. While the platform is now in the Facebook stable, its founder Kevin Systrom’s vision for the app was to be a place where meaningful glimpses of other peoples worlds could be shared. Systrom is quoted as saying: ‘A lot of people think of Instagram as pretty filers and pretty photos. I think that what we’re going to do is allow more exploration and more communication. Instead of just taking a photo and hoping that people will see it, it’s about getting it out there in different ways’.
It was Hurricane Sandy which saw the app getting it’s ‘citizen journalism moment’, and images posted had some ‘Arab Spring style gravitas’ in the United States. Journalist Sarah Landy noted in a 2012 article on Pando: “In theory, Instagram has Twitter’s immediacy, and a broader reach, since it pushes notices out via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram’s own network, and email. Clearly images are the best way to tell a story like this, and Instagram’s whole raison d’être is to make people better photographers. Add to that the storm’s target on urban, hipster, we’re-not-scared New Yorkers, and the time seems as good as any for the revolution to be Instagrammed.”
News Aggregator Sites: Those who do not engage on social media often find their ‘news online’ on aggregator sites like Ireland’s popular TheJournal.ie. Again these type of sites are permeated by citizen journalism.
From the news aggregators perspective mining social sites, connecting with users, and bloggers and using their content helps keep their costs down. Daily there are ‘list’ articles cobbled together by junior staff from tweets about news events in Ireland. This content provides entertaining, shareable ‘click bait’ content for the aggregator at little or no cost.
They also approach bloggers, and amateur citizen journalists, to write ‘guest posts’ for their site for no fee. These posters get to enjoy the vanity and flattery of having their content read by an exponentially bigger audience than they would normally experience on their own blogs/Twitter/Facebook. They will trade their ‘citizen journalism’ for personal exposure.
The future – Citizen Journalism what’s next?
What has been established is that Citizen Journalism is not going away, in fact, it will continue to grow as technologies advance and online communities galvanize. The challenge, remains, however in finding the real news amid the noise, and establishing the veracity of the images, posts and sound-bytes that appear on-line.
London-based ‘communications rights’ organisation Radar are among those hoping to aid in this area by providing not only smart technologies to people in remote and marginalised communities, but giving them journalistic training.
By equipping citizens with basic, but fundamental training in professional journalistic ethics, and also giving them the means to share that information, they ‘push for genuine inclusion in decisions and authentic representation in public dialogue’.
What does seem to be emerging in the digital space is the desire for a more symbiotic relationship between the professional journalist and the citizen journalist. Clements Wlokas, editor in chief of Hannover local newspaper group Heimatzeitungen previously noted that citizen journalists are harnessed as cheap content providers by commercial news operators, ““but there is an argument for a hybrid model” which would free up professional journalists to add value to citizen journalism content and curate the same.”
YouTube have already made the first steps in this march towards on-line content verification with the establishment in 2015 of the First Draft Coalition. This is a body of thought leaders and social media pioneers who create educational content and resources to teach content creators and journalists in the ethics of using citizen journalism in news content, and the verification of news reports. Experts hail from Eyewitness Media Hub, Storyful, Bellingcat, Meedan, and Verification Junkie among others.
With more and more content being uploaded onto social media in particular from independent ‘citizen journalism’ sources, and the volume of hoaxed and unsubstantiated claims that go viral while unverified growing at pace, an opportunity for a ‘truth index’ has arisen.
There is an opportunity, or rather a necessity, for a public forum where authoritative bodies can contribute to public debate with the same speed as new ‘news’ content is disseminated across the world wide web.
A ‘Daily Index’ is envisioned. The idea is that a news index of all trending stories would be established, and expert groups, industry professionals, trade union and authoritative bodies would be invited to participate and add their expert opinion to content. Examples of ‘authority types’ could include members of the petroleum industry, who might have expert knowledge of explosions; FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the US that respond to disasters in their region; Industry groups – example AAIU, the Air Accident Investigation Unit of Ireland, who could bring a specialist input when a plane crash occurs. These are just some examples, but the gambit of professional bodies which could add gravitas and weight to stories as they break is as wide and varied as the type of news events that emerge.
Their contributions would certainly give credence to news, and mitigate public fear and misunderstanding as news breaks. Most importantly the ‘thumbs up’ of these experts on news stories would give assurance particularly on important matters of public interest.
A Daily Index can react to the news as quickly as it emerges and would not be reliant on professional journalists to harness their contacts and skills to make verification long after a story has broken.
Indeed contributors to the Daily Index would be in someway citizen journalists themselves, or perhaps ‘civic journalists’ who add their informed opinions, vote on the credence of the facts presented and give a rounder opinion of breaking events to the benefit of the greater good and the truth.
It may not be a fail proof means of verification, but it would be a large leap forward towards providing veracity of news as more and more people source their news content online.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
(The above blog post/article was an essay written by me for the Digital Industries and Career Development module of a DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) accredited BSc in Digital Technology, Project Management and Design completed by me in 2016. In the wake of recent ‘FakeNews’ concerns erupting in the digital space, I felt it an appropriate and timely contribution to the debate).