Citizen Journalism is Dead

By: Vincent Maher

Great news, I have restored this post and all the comments from a cache after our server was stolen.

UPDATESince posting this entry I have had a lot of response and have been aware that I may need to rethink some of the more superficial observations of this post. I have posted a paper called “Towards a Critical Media Studies Approach to the Blogosphere”, which is representative of my current thoughts on this matter. I am leaving this post on my blog because it made a lot of people, including myself, think quite hard about this issue.

Misnomers and false witness

Citizen Journalism is dead. In fact, citizen journalism never lived; it was the hardening of a momentary ideal, puffed up with self-importance and glazed with a sweet optimism that kept us interested beyond its shelf life. But let me repeat, for the sake of clarity: Citizen Journalism, as a concept is dead, a dry bone to be tossed over the back fence.

Of course there will be some dogs that that find the memory irresistible but be strong, remain resolute and throw it further and further away.

How did I, as a teacher of multimedia journalism, come to this conclusion? And in such a way that it seems I have switched sides between the Journalists and the pundits of New Media, the ten-year-old misnomer for anything related to the Internet?

It’s a simple story actually. I was, at first, enamoured by the veracity of Gillmor and the new configurations necessary to make Old Media work with today’s technology and way of thinking about issues like truth, value and worth. I read more and more about how the Old Media were under threat, the metaphor of the revolution was so compelling that I found myself taking up a place outside the walls of Old Media, baying for blood as if by reflex or born out of some deeply seated desire to make change. Why? Because fixing something is much less sexy than razing it to the ground and putting up something new. Ask any programmer or mercenary.

So, at some point while throwing guillotined heads at the Old Media I stopped to take stock of what was happening on our side of the battle, whether anything better was being done and what I saw was astonishing.

At the front, and shouting very loudly were a few blood-thirsty journalists and academics, like myself. Then there was a small band of bloggers who were opinionated enough to be popular in a commercial kind of way. Not good. And behind the bloggers? Fifteen billion people all documenting their own lives for themselves, their friends and those who cared. Where are all the reporters, the large group hungry to take over from the journalists?

I realised then, that at some point, like 9/11, like the Iraqi bloggers, like 7/7, there were glitches that looked like Signs. Bloggers got there first; citizens got better video than the TV crews, and so on. But does that really mean the people want to be like journalists? That they see recording events as some sort of civic duty or action? Why would they want to?

Three deadly E’s for Citizen Journalism

My colleague, Colin Daniels, and I came up with some points for a presentation we recently did at What the Hack! This is a remix of those points with a little twist. There are some fundamental differences between a blogger blogging and a journalist reporting and I am going to discuss each individually.




It is easy to sit in an armchair and snigger about the ethics of Old Media journalists or lack thereof. However, the table below will show up some basic dichotomies between the Old Media and the New Media in relation to the broad question of ethics:

Old Media Citizen Journalists
Institutional code of ethics Uncoordinated individual self-interest and fear of litigation
Formalised training either via tertiary education or internally within the media organisation Self-taught amateurs – though you can do a doctorate in blogging with some less informed university faculties
Formal accountability, there is a boss to answer to Superficial accountability on an individual level
Gate keeping and editing standards Subjective selection
Monitoring, via industry bodies and associations Nothing, except commentary and feedback

Each of these differences point to one thing: citizen journalism is potentially devoid of any form of ethical accountability other than the legislative environment in which the individual operates. So, on the level of routine practice, there is very little control, especially in terms of accuracy.

Let me quote an example to make this clearer. In July I sent an email to Steve Outing at the Poynter Institute about how disappointed I was about citizen coverage of the second set of London bomb attacks. Outing ran an article in E-Media Titbits the following day quoting my email. So far so good.

Then Jane Perrone, deputy news editor at the Guardian Unlimited, carried the same story with commentary and further analysis on the Guardian blog. The gist of Perrone’s commentary was in defence of citizen journalism but she decided to add in a bit about me being a “US academic” which was completely untrue. To her credit, she corrected the post at my request.

The problem didn’t stop there however. Immediately afterwards, several bloggers carried the story on their blogs, now referring to me as “US academic Victor Maher”. So the broken telephone continued, repeatedly reinforcing my initial remark that bloggers have no incentive to check the accuracy of their writing and no standards against which to maintain their own accuracy.




Bloggers and academic alike enjoy talking about media economics, and who blames them, there have been many instances when money had the final say in the Old Media world.

I want to shift the perspective slightly. Think about the average journalist in the newspaper, going about her daily business. She has quite a few levels of management above her, all editorial. Then there are the business managers and ultimately, above them, the owners, often in the form of shareholders (a relatively voiceless group in a a scenario where the media company is publicly traded). How does this top-down influence of money and power actually exert itself on the will and actions of the journalist? This is a complex question that has been answered many ways, from the ideological insinuation of predictable behaviour to the indirect influence of power through hierarchy.

What is important in this scenario, is that the journalist would generally not consider there to be a direct connection between their personal point of view and their pay check. Now consider the lone blogger. The blogger needs money so the blogger gets Google AdSense, becomes an Amazon partner, signs up to a lot of other things and starts counting micro-payments.

No long afterwards, the blogger realises that certain content sells better ads than other and reaches the point where a decision has to be made about what to write about. It’s a bottom-up form of economic influence that exerts much more pressure much more directly on the individual than the top-down model in the Old Media newsroom.

Old Media Citizen Journalists
Sells non – contextual advertising Contextual advertising like Google ad-sense
Established clients with formalised relationships Anonymous clients
Old models like classifieds are struggling New models like Craigslist are winning because they are often free and have bigger user bases
Diluted top-down economic influence Concentrated bottom-up economic influence



David Weinberger said some interesting things in his address to the Library of Congress about the structure of knowledge in the blogosphere as opposed to the sphere of Britannica and newsprint. He draws on two models for knowledge – the positivistic treelike structure of knowledge and Aristotelian demonstrative patterns, on the one hand, and the spaghetti-like networked subjectivity of the blogosphere on the other hand.

Now, with the former structure of knowledge being dominant in the Old Media, the necessary controls are similarly hierarchical. If the journalist says it, it is probably true but if the editor agrees then it is even more likely to be true, etc. The process of publishing a story is a localised and controlled attempt to create a piece of knowledge as a finished and stand-alone object for others to interact with.

The blogosphere, filled with its fictional civic-minded wannabe journalists, is a mess. Weinberger likes the mess, I am not so sure. Think of the previous example of my name and nationality being spread across the Internet inaccurately. The spaghetti model failed in that instance.

Here is another table of some of the dichotomies:

Old Media Citizen Journalists
De jure authority De facto authority
Tool for reflection and crystallisation of truths Tool for activism, contesting truths
Temporary message Persistent message

Which brings me to my conclusion:

1. This mess we call the blogging versus journalism debate is anchored on a twist of the truth wrapped in a false promise: that this blogging army is co-ordinated and uniform in its intentions. Forget it, you’ve been conned by an elite and persuasive group of pissed-off anti-paperians.

2. The traditional media will and should adopt and use the forms of the New Media that work and assimilate them for better use within a structured environment, and bring some of that structure to them. The Guardian blog is an example of this not working properly.

A better debate, if we have to debate, is whether or not the networked subjectivity of the blogosphere is a more fitting model for saving cultural knowledge than the centralised and hierarchical objectivity of the printed media.


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