Citizen journalism in the age of global terrorism


Recent events in the world have again raised the issue of citizen journalism, especially for recording events in the “global war on terror”. The events in Mumbai, India, have demonstrated that citizen journalism is now an established way to relate events, such as acts of terror, to the mainstream media-consuming public. This is certainly not the first time that citizen journalists have recorded an act of terrorism. It is unlikely to be the last time.

When discussing an issue like citizen journalism, initial clarifications need to be made. The first question that comes to mind: What is citizen journalism? This needs to be broached before anything else in order to bring clarity of understanding and to ensure readers have a common understanding about this key element. There are some who object to the use of the term ‘citizen journalist’, dismissing it as inadequate in correctly describing what is really happening. To give an indication of its meaning, both theoretical and practical, I shall take a definition from a popular source rather than an academic one. Long-time freelance journalist Mark Glasser, a regular commentator on new media issues, specifies:

  • “The idea behind citizen journalism is that people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others. For example, you might write about a city council meeting on your blog or in an online forum. Or you could fact-check a newspaper article from the mainstream media and point out factual errors or bias on your blog. Or you might snap a digital photo of a newsworthy event happening in your town and post it online. Or you might videotape a similar event and post it on a site such as YouTube.

In the context of citizen journalists covering acts of terrorism, everyman reporters can become engaged from a number of different angles; 1) As a victim that is caught up in the event, 2) As a bystander that is in the ‘right place’ at the ‘right time’ or 3) Someone who travels to the scene of an act of terror in order to specifically cover it. The first two categories include those who are not necessarily seeking to cover the event, but are in a position to do so by the proximity of the event to them. However, the third category is an individual (or individuals) who deliberately seek to cover an event.

What potential impact or implications does this have for professional journalists? There are a number of potential impacts depending upon the individual(s) and their agenda (if any). If there is an agenda present this may not always be open and obvious. Although the citizen journalist may lack training, she may possess a deal of enthusiasm, which can be a double-edged sword. When done badly, actions of citizen reporters may make the work of professional journalists more difficult by creating resentment or at least resistance in the society affected by intrusions. But if the work is done well it can complement and add to the information available to media outlets.

There have been descriptions of the philosophy of citizen journalism. Some possible motivations and consequences of citizen journalists’ work have been discussed. Other questions are still left unaddressed. How do citizen journalists get covered in mainstream mass media? Back on 7 July, 2005, the bombings in London caught the world’s attention. A number of bombings brought the city to a state of shock and a feeling of uncertainty. On that day the BBC received 22,000 emails and text messages concerning the London tube and bus bombings, together with some 300 photos and a number of video recordings. The places where the terror acts were committed were at times remote from journalists’ access, such as in the London Underground. Of course there were instances of citizen journalism (alternatively called citizen generated journalism) before 7 July, 2005. This is, however, considered to be the ‘turning point’ insofar as it saw the mainstream media using content sent in by non-journalists.

In the recent terror attack on the Indian city of Mumbai, the work and effects of citizen journalists was again the subject of interest in the mainstream media, this time The New York Times. This event was to show that the mix of communications technology coupled with people being at the right place at the right time has transformed the reporting potential of ordinary people. One of the advantages enjoyed by citizen journalists over their professional counterparts is that they are not restricted to the same extent by bureaucratic demands. The dilemma that CNN found itself illustrates this point. Their licence to transmit live video in India had expired, forcing correspondents to report via telephone. There was also the reliance of US channels on coverage and taped reports from the Indian media. Many people turned to the likes of social messaging networks, such as Twitter.

The critical significance of citizen journalism can be best seen during the early stages of an event. This is when information is uncertain, both from the authorities and the mass media, creating a form of information vacuum at precisely the time when demand for information is high. However, citizen reporters are a vulnerable group, due to their proximity to a risk event. But there seems to be a growing symbiotic relationship between citizen journalism and professional journalism. This is evidenced by mainstream media interest in the phenomenon and the use of material from citizen reporters. At the same time, though, citizen journalism is both cooperating with mainstream journalism and in opposition to it by appearing in alternative mediums (such as social networking sites on the Internet), thereby providing an alternative source of information. Youtube, Myspace and Twitter are but a fraction of this new type of media that challenges the ‘traditional’ information sphere.