Changes in the Paradigm: from Citizen Journalism to Social Journalism

Citizen Journalism has always caused some stir: it’s hard to define, some academics and professionals do not consider it to be “real” journalism, yet it has been the source for breaking stories and mainstream media companies have been leeching on it. But Citizen Journalism – if there was ever one -has changed to something more complex and even harder to tackle: Social Journalism.

First of all, I have to make a distinction between the production of content and it’s distribution. Journalism is production, and now its distribution is made through new channels, mainly social networks. The issue here is that users add content while they distribute it, and that contribution can or can not be journalistic. For example, when I covered the Madeira floods, I used content I thought it had journalistic value, like videos and information about missing people, closed roads, isolated villages and overall damage. All the content was being created and shared online by common citizens on their social networks, like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. And this is where the unstable paradigm of Citizen Journalism breaks to give way to Social Journalism.

In my former blog I jotted down a set of characteristics for Citizen Journalism:

  • It’s casual, whoever practices the journalistic act can do it only once in a lifetime.
  • It is mainly spontaneous, not dependant of an incumbency or professional obligation. It can be provoked by opportunity, personal need or social responsibility.
  • It is disorganized/not sistematic – this can happen in more or less degree, specializing in a job implies the learning of a method, that the citizen journalist may or may not master.
  • It is related to the surrounding reality of the citizen journalist, whether it is in a geographical level, emotional, cultural, therefore there is a certain amount of partiality (but like we’ve seen before, impartiality doesn’t not objectively exist in traditional journalism).
  • It doesn’t follow the mainstream news agenda. Apart from calamities, terrorist attacks, or other high profile events, Citizen Journalism tends to reflect realities, subjects, or perspectives absent from the mainstream media coverage.
  • It can be done by people who have a greater specific knowledge about a given subject than a journalist (which happens frequently, one can’t just know about everything).
  • The purpose is not any sort of remuneration but simply the act of information. (this can change)

But today I was reading this very interesting post by Joanna McNurlen that gave me a new perspective and raises some interesting questions:

Certain amateur new media users walk a similar path. They take photos and videos that instantly upload to the Internet, they use GPS software to track and broadcast their locations, and they tweet about everything they experience. The new media call these tech-savvy people “journalists,” but without the old connotation of the term. These so-called journalists do not investigate stories but merely broadcast experiences. They work as transmitters, publicizing their experiences with neither critique nor analysis. In doing so, they invite critique and analysis from other sources, which poses a problem.

“Experience broadcasting”. Now there’s a spot on concept. If you read the whole post, you’ll see she starts with the uploading of content to social networks, and then takes a turn to Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra, which in simple terms means we work with flawed representations of reality, and build new representations of it every time we relay our own view on it. This has always happened, and photography as one of the noble arts of journalism has always faced that problem: it captures in frame a slice of reality to show the core of that reality. Of course, many times it overlooked what was outside the frame for dramatic effect.

I remember thinking when I was a doing my first newsroom internship – in the last years of the last century – how little the audience gets from the actual reality of the news. A journalist has a backstage pass to reality, but it does not interfere (ideally) with the show, but neither gets the audience’s perspective. We see the actors before the makeup, the ropes and strings holding the set specifically built to maximize the visual effect for the audience, the marks on the floor and all. We do not report on that because that’s not the news. The show itself is, but we use that privileged position to account on it, and that was the power of the journalist: access.

But things changed and now reality and it’s slices and representations are in the middle of a virtual social arena, and the audience is part of it, surrounds it, builds and rebuilds that reality. When Haiti was hit by an earthquake six months ago most of the information was “broadcast” by people who lived it. They shared pictures, video, others outside the country managed to create maps with the information available, Google changed their own maps to show the degree of devastation. Google is not a news company, but knows the value and the need  users had for that information. Google thought in “Social” terms, like the ones who kept tweeting and posting content on Facebook, and sharing those snippets of journalism-unmediated reality online.

So the change goes like this: with Citizen Journalism, users created content (in different levels of complexity and depth), shared it; in Social Journalism users broadcast experiences or echo other people’s experiences by adding their own content to them and re-distributing it, and in some cases, that can be classified as journalism. Corporate media is already tapping social networks for stories and they have to do so or they’ll miss out on a huge amount of stories. And if you think broadcasting experiences is not journalism, well, take a look at this:

Hindenburg Disaster

We always had experiences broadcast by media, now many experiences are broadcast by users. The middle man (the journalist) is off the circuit between event and audience, but it’s not out of the loop. A huge part of journalist’s work these days is to validate the information, repurpose it  for an audience that is willing to build on it, and create context. But context is for another post.

Though media companies still ask their audience to become “citizen journalists” and profit from user generated content (UGC), I believe that things are changing to something more interesting: UGC turns into Social Generated Content as users post their experiences in social networks and think only about their connected peers, and not the local newspaper or radio station. This new “ParaMedia” phenomenon includes Meta and Hyper Media, but most important of all, it defines what social media is all about: sharing.

And you can share your thoughts with the rest of us. You probably saw this on Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, FriendFeed, your RSS reader of choice, so what do you make of it? Can personal snippets on reality be considered as journalism? Was journalism a corporate aggregator of reality slices? Where does journalism must evolve to deal with Social Generated Content?

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