New Players at the Gate: The Role of Social Media in Citizen Journalism

Posted: March 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

Image by Buchholz, J. H. (2005). Retrieved from


Image by Ambrozik, B. (2013). Retrieved from

A colleague recently wrote in a forum post a reminder of previous learning regarding critical reflection in which we had engaged. Borrowing from his post he reminded me that “Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) include critical reflection as one of the three key elements of transformational learning.  It involves reflecting on the content, the process, and the premise” (Vusich, 2013).

This is relevant to this week’s module since critical reflection was an integral part of new learning for me around the topic of citizen journalism. Prior to the readings I had the (not too considered)  opinion that while Web 2.0 offered opportunities for information collection, traditional journalism, with its reliance on verification was likely the most reliable way to gather and disseminate “real” news.

Upon completion of the five associated articles that thoroughly explore the phenomenon of citizen journalism, critical reflection has resulted in a personal transformational shift.

“Facts, truth and reality are…the “God terms” in journalism (Zelizer, as cited in Hermida, 2012) with information verification the cornerstone of journalistic integrity. This quote describes the essence of my previously held perspectives regarding news. I want a credible and reliable source from which to receive information. However, Hermida asserts that in so doing, mainstream media exerts control and power over what stories are deemed newsworthy and how they are presented.

Social media; particularly Twitter and blogs are offering alternative perspectives to information gathering. Hermida describes the process through which Twitter offers ongoing pieces of information that is shared, fact-checked, denied or reframed in an open forum that evolves through collaborative discursive processes including citizens and media. The issue of verification in real-time news dissemination is less about definitive facts and more to present “a dynamic and interactive rendition of events” (Hermida, 2012, p. 664). Bruns and Highfield (2012) cited Twitter’s capacity for discovering a story that can then be expanded in venues with the ability to more deeply explore nuances and implications, or to extend the life of a story (such as WikiLeaks) that may have reached its “best before” date as determined by mainstream media players.

I can live with this fluidity – after all as noted by Brennan, any news information is open to interpretation by the individual presenting his/her findings (as cited in Hermida, 2012). Additionally, traditional news gathering organizations may be subject to organizational bias as a result of funding from actors engaged in lobbying activities which in turn influences editorial directions (Bruns & Highfield, 2012).

As I read further I noted several distinct opportunities for citizen journalists:

  1. One of the key social media benefits for citizen journalists is a lessening of the control of cultural production and knowledge by news organizations into voluntary contributions from a variety of diverse sources.  This seems to me to democratize and de-centralize ownership of what and how information is presented.
  2. I liked the term ‘multiperspectival’ (Lind & Bruns, 2012) in which news gathering in social media represents numerous and divergent perspectives. The culminating factor in my transformation to a proponent of social media’s role in journalism is the Friedman (2011) article entitled Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima: An analysis of traditional and new media coverage of nuclear accidents and radiation.” The author presents compelling empirical evidence to demonstrate substantive increases in the quality and quantity of information that was available for consumption following the Fukushima accident. Clearly, the internet and the collaboration of citizen and professional journalists resulted in in-depth, interactive and multi-faceted information to a global community; far better than the traditional news media outlets were able to provide in the earlier incidents.
  3. The advent of news curation – (i.e our Storify exercise this week or storylines in Twitter using hashtags) in which participatory journalism offers news, opinion, commentary on specific stories or topics. Curation activities are now the domain of both the professional and the amateur but the advantage is that there is no one individual organization charged with “gatekeeping.”  “Gatewatching, according to Lind and Bruns (2102) is the new watchword and allows all of us to engage with news and information as we choose – to capture or compile; collaborate, contribute and inform (p. 7). As a story is curated its discrete elements and components can be assessed for validity, completeness and perspective.
  4. Most compelling piece of evidence: Voice. Dahlgren (2003) discusses the impact of voice as a social process, in which narratives can be shared and valued. Social media seems to be a core component in the provision of voice. Participation is enabled through Web 2.0 – social media is a tool which ensures that we do not deny voice to those around us; “to deny it to others is to at least implicitly to deny their humanity” (p. 37). How eloquent an argument for the role of social media in citizen journalism is that?

We were asked to consider if the emergence of these new opportunities encourages us to participate more directly in citizen journalism and/or social activism or not.

I think that the early answer is yes; it may be a few tentative tweets or blog posts until I find my voice. I still worry about my digital footprint, but I can see me offering facts and or opinion where I think it might forward a discussion or provide additional insight. This requires conscious self-editing in what we choose to share. I deplore some of the types of whistle-blowing activities that have emerged in a Web 2.0 era; the sleeping TTC employee who turned out to be ill; the finger pointing after the suicide of Amanda Todd. I am not sure that any of these are positive contributions but judicious use is required with any emerging tools.

A caveat for all information gathering is that we are ill-served in accepting any news story without critical reflection as to its veracity, its sources and credibility. Whatever role we choose for ourselves needs to be informed by critically reflective evaluative processes.

  1. sarah says:

    I’m glad that someone other than myself experienced a change in views after reading all articles in this module! I want to go off your first point. I agree that with online media and citizen journalism it is very hard to learn who the original creator of something is. For example, what happens when an image of a crime scene is posted and then shared and copied onto many mediums. How does someone find who the original photographer of the photo is? This can become quit challenging when images or stories are saved and reposted many times over. I feel that this is a negative of citizen journalism and often the original creator’s voice gets distorted or lost. Does this then give citizens a voice at all? Images and news that people find interesting are heard by all but the original creator hardly ever receives the credit. I will suggest that citizen journalism becomes more like a mash up of many peoples voices that all get put together into a piece. I believe in this sense citizen journalism is more of a collaboration and in this sense everyone’s voices get heard.

    • afcallaghan says:

      Hi Sarah -thanks for your feedback. I am interested that you also changed your view. I was fairly firmly convinced prior to this module that I would could not be convinced too easily regarding the “real” value in citizen journalism. I had seen wonderful photographs, some cool human interest stories etc. but I thought that anything that required “hard” news reporting needed mostly traditional and verifiable sources. You are right when you discuss the notion of collaboration and the value in many voices. I think that as long as we continue to blend the various mediums (as in your example of a crime story that needs to be authenticated) then we reap the benefits of both immediacy that perhaps “breaks” a story, with the authenticity that a more established news source might have. What are your thoughts around that?


  2. sperrier686 says:

    It was refreshing to see another blog post reflecting on the need for personal research and reflection on news stories, regardless of the source, but especially through mediums such as social media, before accepting said story as fact. I feel as if a large portion of the population is naive, especially when they see well produced pieces, generally accepting information to be true without truly considering the pieces sources and general credibility. Looking at the Kony 2012 phenomenon of last year produced by invisible children is a great point to this. Despite the videos they produced educating the masses of legitimate issues occurring, the funds received by invisisble children was only giving 31% of funds received to the cause. If people would simply do their research before jumping on such a bandwagon, they could be trying to find legitimate solutions to such issues, instead of spending $30 for a t shirt and some posters thinking that they are helping.

    • afcallaghan says:

      Thanks for your feedback. Well said regarding the need for research on trending news topics! I think that holds true for any story, regardless of the medium, but especially on those in which we cannot hold the sources accountable as we can (at least to a degree in traditional media).

  3. Ayo says:

    In relation to the new opportunities that social media has provided to citizen journalism, one must not forget the power of other outlets such as youtube that provide real time footage of breaking news. When It comes to verification, one can say that real time footage trumps all when it comes to facts and truths.

    Upon reflection of the readings of this weeks module, one can begin to appreciate the opportunities that social media such as twitter have provided. Although the information coming through has not been verified, we are given the opportunity to condense and saturate the information ourselves. Our access is greater and we are not subject to the possibly biased views of a major news organization.

    It is important to keep in mind the “conscious self-editing”, you write about. More often than before we are seeing individuals being held accountable for exploiting the opportunities that social media applications have provided them.

    • afcallaghan says:

      Thanks for your note! Your point regarding real time footage is really interesting. I would agree completely except for the ability that we can access to create illusory images using technology. Do you ever worry that we cannot always really believe our eyes?


  4. Great post Ann. I, like you, was a bit, dare I say, snobbish when it came to valuing citizen journalism in the Web 2.0 era as compared to traditional media such as television network news, newspapers and magazines and even news/talk radio. The readings provided me with an opportunity to reflect upon these biases and consider the place that citizen journalism has in the greater good of society. What I came away with was that the debate is not an either-or type of scenario. Rather, citizen journalism and the affordances for it granted by the World Wide Web is an opportunity to extend the concept of a free press beyond the control of the few, the privileged, the powerful. I took to heart your comments on what these new affordances mean for you personally. While I argued in my blogpost that the new technology did not encourage me to participate in citizen journalism, it certainly provides for less of an excuse not to. And, like anything, the more that I’ve participated, particularly if my participation has garnered some reaction from the netizens out there, the more encouraged that I’ve been to participate even more.

    • afcallaghan says:

      Hi Bruce – thanks for the comments! I think you nailed it when you used the term ‘snobbish’ – quite a fair descriptor of my before and after perspectives.
      I also agree that this is not an either/or situation. What I have really learned through all of this is that there is no one way to look at anything related to technology and Web 2.0 as we have over the course of this semester. If I learn nothing else, that is a very big “take-away.”

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