Monday, March 22

Citizen Journalist: Some called him a hero, others called him a heel

Citizen journalism got a fair bit of mention during last week’s Pan African Media Conference, I understand.

I look forward to seeing how that attention translates into concrete actions and policies within traditional media houses and whether it changes how they go about harnessing new media channels as they source, curate and distribute news.

Not being a big fan of the either or debate around the question of traditional media and citizen journalism, I read with a quirked eyebrow Lee Mwiti of the Nation Media Group quoting the newspaper group’s former editorial director and veteran journalist, Wangethi Mwangi, as saying that “It all boils down to the quality of information and on this, traditional media is still ahead.”

Disclaimer: I was not at the conference so I may be suffering from a lack of context. 

But. If that is what was said in defense of traditional journalism, it strikes me as an oddly sweeping indictment that begs qualification on multiple fronts.

A question of quality

For example, what was his working definition of quality and what is the nature of the information whose quality is in question? Are we talking language/grammar or accuracy or ethical considerations and therefore trustworthiness? Are we talking all blogs, most blogs, some blogs? What about citizen journalism channels such as and Maneno: were they top of mind or not in question?

What if a blogger is sitting at her window watching a mob wreak havoc, burn things, throw stones, and she blogs about this as she sees it, as it happens?  What if another blogger attends a highly publicised tech event and records his firsthand experience, peppered with anecdotes that situate the story within the wider, larger narrative of tech in Africa and because he belongs in the story and knows the actors better than a journalist, his account is richer than the story that appears in the newspaper that week.  What then?

Having worked briefly in a media house, I understand what is meant by editorial standards and editorial policies.  Still, I suggest that it is more a matter of the nature of information rather than the quality when  you’re comparing the best of traditional journalistic fare with the best of citizen media.
Ultimately, the breaking news orientation of today’s fast-paced environment have completely altered the role of print media in the scheme of things.

Now, by the time the morning paper gets to you,  you know what the stories are going to be because you received a text message when the news was still steaming hot, you checked the story online and you watched it’s rendition on primetime news. If it is a hot item, you have been watching snippets every half hour packaged as ‘breaking news.’ You can pause for breathe in perfect rhythm with the TV journalist. 

Naturally then, if you’re going to buy a newspaper, you want more. You want indepth analysis. You want the backstory. You want context. You want every link you can get that threads that story into a wider narrative. This is why major news is hardly ever served raw in the paper any more—it is heavily editorialised to justify its existence.

To the extent that traditional media houses have the people and financial resources to commit to chasing the story deeper and further than the individual blogger on his own might be able to, they have an important role to play in the scheme of things.
Who's not indispensable now?

Yet even here, traditional media need not delude itself that it is indispensable. One blogger on her own might not be able to tell the whole story, but many bloggers each one working on their own little piece of the puzzle might yet build that picture to high degree of accuracy.

A caveat: this will become increasingly the case as the tools that enable citizens to gather and disseminate information become widely available because as long as these tools remain only in the hands of a privileged digital class, the picture will remain unwhole even if not untrue. Which goes some way to explain my current infatuation with the mobile phone and the possibilities it delivers far and wide and deep in my native Kenya and in Africa as a whole.

But in the meantime traditional media have a vital role in leveraging their resource advantage to ensure that those who do not have yet have a tech-assisted ‘microphone’ of their own have the opportunity to be heard. (which mind you, is not the same as speaking for them).

In the meantime, the rise of citizen journalism itself surfaces myriad questions. Questions such as: what is news to who anyway; when do common definitions matter and; when don’t they matter?

Because citizen journalism is as much about the stories people choose to cover and why they cover them as about the fact that those who participate do so outside of the traditional media structure.

Not every bit of news that a traditional media house gathers is published. Some of it is edited out for perfectly good reasons, key among them, that it cannot be verified. And this is as it should be.

In bed with the news

But some of it is censored out for other reasons not so pure and noble.  Censored for example because the media owners or the media managers are in bed with the subjects of the news either politically or economically and there’s political capital or advertising to be lost in telling the truth such as it is.

It is when the latter reasons prevent traditional media from publishing what ought in fact to be published, what the people have the right to know, that citizen journalists are best placed to make the difference, to be the difference. Especially when they are less invested in and indebted to the system in general and to specific stories in particular.

Because let’s face it: if you own or run one of the biggest media properties in the country and also happen to own a significant stake in a corporation that is suddenly hit by a crisis which, if it becomes widely known, will cause great damage to your personal bottomline, you’re not going to be fence sitting.

It is in these instances that citizen journalists play their most crucial role in advancing freedom of information.  Which is not to say that there are no bloggers out there who are rush and biased and judgemental and of fluid morality posing as bona fide citizen journalists. There are citizen journalists with special interests all over the place, I’m certain.

But, by virtue of the law of averages, not all citizen journalists share the same special interests all the time so, eventually different stories are bound to find their way into the public domain through different routes.

I hail the advent and rise of citizen journalism. As Niti Bhan so eloquently put it: “Only local voices, consistently heard can share the story of a location.”  I would only qualify that statement by noting that location no longer has only a geographical dimension. Location can be physical but it can also be social, economic, demographic, cultural or demographic.

In the end, citizen journalism is about people telling the stories of their location. And of finally having a say in what stories get told about their location.  


Ms. XX said...

Great analysis. Traditional (print) media in Kenya has reason to be worried particularly with the rise of internet use in the country (apparently, Kenya is a leader in mobile internet use in Africa). One tends to get bored with the Kenyan media's obsession with politics and craves for a wider coverage of issues; a gap that social media has been more than happy to fill. So perhaps Wangethi Mwangi should not be too quick to dismiss citizen journalism.

Mpenda Vitabu said...

I think it's just a matter of time before traditional journalism takes its rightful place - second position to citizen journalism.

Julius Adegunna said...

What the traditional journalists should be thinking about is how to survive in the digital age bcos citizen journalism will for a long time remain a threat.