Citizen Journalism

Lewis Friedland & Nakho Kim. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The phenomenon of citizen journalism arose in the late 1990s, powered by new ways of user participation including the Internet. Initially identified with individual blogging, the term citizen journalism soon became an umbrella concept encompassing both personal blogging and institutional practices by news organizations. By the early twenty-first century, citizen journalism utilized the practices and technology of web 2.0 for production and distribution while fulfilling some of the social functions carried out by traditional journalism.

Some definitions of citizen journalism include any form of user-generated content. Here the definition of citizen journalism is more strict and refers to contribution to discussion in the public sphere, whether in the form of simple information, synthesis, reporting, or opinion. The contributions can range from very local to global, entering into the “conversation of democracy” in media critic James Carey’s phrase. As long as their contents meet this definition, citizen journalists can be individuals making a single contribution (a fact, correction, photo, etc.), bloggers, or professionals editing citizen content for “professional-amateur” (pro-am) sites which integrates the works of professional staff and citizen contributors.

Citizen Journalism versus Traditional Journalism

Citizen and traditional journalism can be viewed as operating on a series of at least six continua. One major axis is that of primary synthesis versus “crowdsourcing.” Traditional journalism acquires primary sources, whether interviews or documents, and then analyzes and synthesizes them. New forms of contribution-based journalism, such as the website Assignment Zero, rely more heavily on the “crowd” to collect sources and analyze and synthesize them in a distributed way.

Second is the axis of distributed versus fully crafted narrative. In a distributed narrative, the story emerges in bits and pieces, from the sum of reader contributions in the form of a hyper-linked story. Even self-contained articles can acquire new meaning and context in the network. Traditional journalism synthesizes primary documents or interviews into a coherent story with little or no audience contribution.

Third is the degree of training of professionals and amateurs. Although some people have a professional background, citizen journalism involves journalistic amateurs by definition. However, there are degrees of training for citizen journalists, ranging from none, to web-based guidelines, to local training courses. In some instances citizen journalists are paid through distributed methods or advertisements, but still most remain unpaid.

Fourth, citizen journalism generally blurs the traditional distinction between fact and opinion. While traditional journalism emphasizes that distinction as a norm, many citizen journalism sites, particularly those identified with individual political bloggers, tend to highlight the presence of opinion.

Fifth, the traditional journalistic norm of fairness is less strictly applied. While some citizen journalism sites strive to build in principles of fairness and balance, many rely on the very personal views of bloggers, and allow almost any form of comment, leaving it to the crowd to self-correct potential abuses.

Lastly, there is the variation in the size of the intended audience. Though any online content can potentially reach a worldwide audience, traditional journalism targets a mass audience. On the other hand, citizen journalism sites can be (and often are) as small as one writer talking to a very small circle. So while traditional journalism resides on the “mass” end of the potential audience continuum, citizen journalism’s “audience” is much more variable, ranging from tiny to massive.


Citizen journalism has some affinities with the public or civic journalism movement, which began in the late 1980s and continued into the twenty-first century. Led by newspapers, journalists sought to address a perceived crisis in the way news media covered democracy and civic life. Based on the notion that the voices of the citizen and community interests disappeared from public issues, they applied a range of innovations: citizen polls, use of focus groups, special issues projects, new forms of comparative election coverage, and writing with greater individual, authorial voice. Many of these techniques have been adopted in citizen journalism.

Another foundation was the effort to establish practices of collecting and distributing self-created news through computer networks, which dates back to the creation of FidoNews in 1984. FidoNews was an open contribution online newsletter by the grassroots dial-up bulletin board system called FidoNet. A decade later, the Usenet newsgroup Internews aimed to provide alternative journalism built upon user contribution.

One of the earliest examples of web-based citizen journalism was the IndyMedia network built by protesters against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. Although the medium was new, IndyMedia actually was a continuation of a long line of independent alternative media, often exhibiting a liberal point of view, beginning with the community radio and television movements of the 1970s.

By 2000, new forms of citizen media developed alongside Web 2.0. Web 2.0 enhanced use of technologies for collaboration, including web-based communities, new social media and social networking sites, wikis, and blogs. By January 2008 there were more than 100 million blogs worldwide. Collaborative user-created content also grew, with the widely popular Wikipedia hosting more than 2 million user-contributed articles in the English language as of early 2008. Mobile phones became increasingly sophisticated devices including the ability to share text, images, video, and web content. YouTube (founded in 2005) allowed users to easily share video clips anywhere in the world. CNN’s, which was founded as a form of pro-am citizen journalism in 2006, has received more than 100,000 clips. CurrentTV, which was founded by Al Gore in 2005, is a cable channel programmed entirely by its users.

Citizen Content

One of the most significant drivers of citizen journalism is the ability to post content about events as they are happening, chronicling the events with numerous and varied personal accounts rather than a single in-depth summary. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 prompted a major leap as thousands of eyewitness cell phone pictures and videos were posted on the web within hours, and major news organizations drew heavily from this content to tell the story. During the Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004, many tourists using digital devices captured images of tidal waves, and mainstream media relied almost exclusively on these sources in the early days of coverage. Other prominent events during which citizen journalism helped drive the story include Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and the Virginia Tech Massacre of April 2007. Likewise, the first news and images on the Szechuan earthquake in China in May 2008 came from the message-sharing site

Citizen content can have a significant effect in nations with authoritarian rule or censorship. In 2007 the world learned of widespread protests against the repressive Myanmar (Burma) military regime almost exclusively through citizen content smuggled over the border, which, in turn, generated international support and, arguably, tempered the regime’s response. The Tibetan protests against China in early 2008 also relied on citizen content to reach the wider world.

Pro-Am Citizen Media

OhmyNews was founded in South Korea in 2000 by Oh Yeon-ho as the first major pro-am site and is still among the most important and successful. Ohmy built on an existing tradition of civic media in South Korea, combined with a widespread need among the public for both personal and democratic self-expression. Initially, Ohmy’s four professional editors (there were 60 by 2008) handled hundreds of citizen contributions that poured in daily, ranging from shopkeepers’ accounts of daily life to sophisticated political commentary. Ohmy played a major role in the election of reform President Roh Moo-hyun in 2002, and protecting him in 2004 when conservative parties sought to impeach him. While most traditional media sided with the conservatives, Ohmy created a broad public sphere through live coverage of mass candlelight vigils, editorials, and discussion boards. An analytical article by a philosophy professor criticizing the impeachment movement generated a record $27,000 in income through Ohmy’s online “tipping” system. Pro-am cartoonists joined to create anti-impeachment editorials, which spread virally through blogs and online forums.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Internet was widely used by citizens to post pictures, search for lost or missing relatives, and to post news of devastated neighborhoods. But the New Orleans Times-Picayune played a major role in taking much of this raw citizen-generated material, sifting through it, fact-checking (where possible), and organizing it in a series of narratives, from small local stories with imperfect information to larger master narratives of the cleanup efforts in neighborhoods, the government response, and the restoration of daily life. This is the most extensive case of pro-am collaboration in the production of local news in the United States. With it, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006.

Blogosphere and Citizen Journalism

Blogs and forum sites can also be viewed as citizen journalism when they are essentially public conversations, including collaborative community sites that engage in a comprehensive discussion of specific topics. Slashdot blends intense discussion of all things technological through a combination of blogs and discussion boards, user contributions, and links. These are then rated or filtered based on community standards, to produce a consensus.

Political blogs have risen to increasing prominence in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Among the most prominent are Daily Kos on the democratic left, and Instapundit on the conservative side. Kos, like most political blogs, began with the strong authorial voice of its founder Markos Moulitsis, but it quickly grew into a “site of sites,” with links to and from many smaller less prominent blogs on the political left. As it expanded, Kos gained prominence and was, in turn, linked to by mainstream websites such as CNN and MSNBC, making it a critical aggregator for a mix of news and opinion on the left, finding material across the blogosphere and filtering it for mainstream media. Other sites, like Josh Micah Marshall’s, function in a similar way, but do more original reporting, acting more like small independent web journals blending high-quality reporting and opinion. On the right, similar blogs operate in different media ecology, sharing space with the large amplifying media of conservative talk radio and Fox News. Sites like the Drudge Report (started in 1994 as a mailing list and the original model of national voice online) often circulate unsubstantiated rumors or talking points, which become amplified as they are picked up by larger media.

Finally, there are a series of blogs that report on changes in the media, and particularly on citizen journalism itself. The broadest may be, run by Jay Rosen, a professor who was a founder of the public journalism movement. Pressthink regularly points to new developments in citizen journalism and critically thematizes and debates issues. Other important sites on citizen journalism are Dan Gilmor’s Center for Citizen Media, Jeff Jarvis’s, and the Online Journalism Review. J-Lab, founded by citizen journalism leader Jan Shaffer, has been a critical incubator for new efforts. Prominent media studies think tanks and some foundations focus a significant part of their efforts on citizen journalism, including the Knight Foundation, Harvard Berkman Center, and the Center for Communication and Democracy.


Citizen journalism is emergent by its nature, which makes it hard to draw overly sharp lines on specific models. However, some general trends are evident.

Incorporation of Locality

One of the strengths of citizen journalism lies in the ability of local citizens to report on topics that have been considered too narrow by traditional media, creating a comparative advantage in both niche targeting and community building. “Hyperlocal” or “place blogging” specializes in matters at the level of zip code or even neighborhood. One of the most prominent is Baristanet, a group blog about three neighborhood areas in New Jersey. To make up for its narrow local audience, the site aims for a loyal readership; it received 7,000 daily visits in 2008.

Citizen-generated local media operates on a more public scale. Local media are created and written by local citizens concerned with local issues. The Forum in Deerfield, Ohio, and in Northfield, Minnesota, were founded by local volunteer non-profit organizations to build local media where none had existed. The sites are managed by paid staff, but receive reporting from local citizen journalists, emphasizing the role of the local media in strengthening local community.

Aggregation of hyperlocal news also collects reports of local interest from various sources. Since hyperlocal news is generally covered in local citizen media and place blogs, this model practically functions as an overarching news service for local citizen journalism. The site Outside. in uses search engines to collect local news sources and categorizes them into over 11,860 towns and neighborhoods. Outside. in accepts direct local citizen reporting as well.


There is a growing recognition of the need to combine professional and amateur reporting. To maintain journalistic quality while keeping entrance barriers low, mixed approaches are being implemented with prominent success. The pro-am civic reporting model incorporates news reports from both citizen contributors and their own professional staff writers. At the New York–based site Gotham Gazette, professional staff writers write major articles on current civic issues, while opening the doors for citizen contributions. Voiceofsandiegoorg, based in San Diego, takes the level of professionalism a step further. The site is a nonprofit organization, and its news structure resembles traditional daily newspapers while equally incorporating citizen contributions.

On the other hand, the commons and citizen training model puts emphasis on enhancing the journalistic quality of citizen contributions through news reporting training for aspiring citizen journalists. MyMissourian and Twin Cities Daily Planet are prominent sites that provide open workshops to citizens. Madison Commons in Madison, Wisconsin, has trained more than 100 residents in workshops to report on neighborhood topics in the course of two years with the goal of raising citizen reporting standards.

Convergence and Collectivity

Models built on Web 2.0 more directly are implementing new techniques like crowdsourcing. By issuing open calls for citizens to add new information to a story, each contributor is relieved of having to write a whole piece. The resulting articles have a rich layer of information and viewpoints. In 2006, the Fort Myers, Florida–based newspaper News-Press opened up its investigative report on local water and sewer system troubles to citizens. An overwhelming number of responses came in via online forums, email submissions, and phone calls, and the issue was covered in more depth and stirred more public discussion than most conventional investigative reporting.

Citizen-contributed aggregators and news services are also growing rapidly. They combine and categorize citizen-produced articles and traditional journalism, blurring the line between the two. Moving a step beyond editor-managed aggregators such as Huffington Post, services like Newsvine let the citizen’s vote decide what articles are shown as headlines, and social indexing can change the categorical context in which an article is read. is one of the most successful news crowdsourcing sites to date. Any user can submit articles, contribute additional information ranging from related links to cell phone footage, make an open call for others to contribute, and also recommend articles that should be promoted to the front page.

Citizen journalism will continue as the most rapidly growing segment of online reporting. Increasingly, traditional news organizations online will come to resemble mixtures of citizen and traditional journalism.