The impact of citizen journalism on the public sphere

Essay, 2015

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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New media arises and with it the readership of the traditional media coupled declines. Public participation in the news process gives rise to independent online journalism (Rodrigues & Braham, 2008). Media expansion and the availability of media outputs have grown simultaneously as both the markets and technology have developed. Portability transformed the media landscape forever: “The opportunities for media consumption have expanded dramatically and become fluid, entering all social spaces and becoming an intimate part of our daily lives” (Croteau & Hoynes, p.45, 2006). As a matter of fact most people are using Facebook and Twitter as a primary source of news and information these days (MapsofWorld, 2013).

Blogging given birth to a new generation of citizen journalists: more than 12 million American adults had created their own blog by 2006 and more than a third of Internet users said they read them (Lenhart & Foc, 2006). Six years later in 2012 there were about 59.4 million WordPress sites across the world and they received 3.5 billion views in all (MapsofWorld, 2013). Other content creation forms are gaining more and more popularity as well: Wikipedia has more than 4.5 million English-language entries - all user-generated and user-edited (Wikipedia, 2014).

All these platforms enable to share own content. Anyone can become an author in these times, publish articles and share own content. Though news organizations get millions of eyes and ears on the ground, citizen journalists present a host of challenges for media outlets. Citizen contributions pose a difficult, time-consuming and potentially risky process for publications.

Public Sphere

The German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas analysed the emergence and development of the mass media from the early eighteenth century to today, tracing the creation a subsequent decay of the “public sphere” (1981). According to Habermas the public sphere is an arena of public debate in which issues of general concern can be discussed and opinions formed. The public sphere involve individuals that come together as equals in a forum for a public debate.

“The concept of the public sphere is a metaphor that we use to think about the way that information and ideas circulate in large societies” (McKee, p. vii, 2005). When information is available to the public it is in the public sphere. McKee adds that the phrase has also another meaning about culture and politics, where it is a “central and well-developed concept for thinking about how democratic culture should work” (p. vii, 2005).

As a result of the growth of mass media, the public sphere become largely a sham. “Public opinion is not formed through open, rational discussion any longer, but through manipulation and control – as, for example, in advertising” (Giddens, p. 750, 2009). When citizen discuss issues of the day the public sphere takes place. And these issues are in most cases controlled by mass media: they had become the chief institutions of the public sphere (Dahlgren, 1995).

Nevertheless, a pattern that brings the discussions of citizen journalism with fact oriented reporting together could be a more fitting model to build a vibrant public sphere than the hierarchical model of mass media (Maher, 2005).

Online news reporting in flux

In the late 1980s till the twenty-first century began the public and civic journalism movement. “Led by newspapers, journalists sought to address a perceived crisis in the way news media covered democracy and civic life” (Sterling, p.298, 2009). According to Sterling, the citizen and community interests disappeared at these times from public issues.

The possibility to distribute self-created news through computer networks was essential for the development of citizen journalism. This close relationship between citizen journalism and open source software development dates back at least to 1999, when the IndyMedia network created a web-based citizen journalism against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle (Sterling, 2009).

Finally web 2.0 enhanced all forms of citizen media: social media came into being, next to web-based communities, social networking sites, wikis and blogs. More than 100 million blogs existed already by 2008 (Sterling, 2009). And not just texts were shared: mobile phones included the ability to share images, videos and web content. In 2005 YouTube was founded and allowed everyone to create own video channels and contribute news. Kovach clarified, through this new form of journalism also the media consumption changes:

Technology has filled the world with a flood of undifferentiated information that is changing the audience for news and information from passive receivers to proactive consumers, who divide what they want, when they want it, and how they want it (p. 1, 2005).

The changes in the media business lead to new economic pressures on journalism. The press industry had to make a lot of changes. One of the biggest ones is the transformation to an increasingly converged newsroom (Rodrigues & Braham, 2008). The so-called “church-state wall” in newsrooms refers to the separation between the business side of news and the editorial content (Croteau & Hoynes, 2006). Journalists must remain independent of advertisers wishes or business concerns to maintain their credibility. According to Croteau and Hoynes, the bottom line is that “placing profits above all else has political implications and places real constraints on media content” (p.178, 2006) thus on the public sphere.

Levy and Nielsen suggest that more agile organisations will be needed (2010). These have to take more entrepreneurial approaches to creating the financial resources available for their operations. Behind this they have to be more innovative in terms of the news products and services they provide. The model of media has to be rethinked: “Newspapers will have to focus their efforts on providing news and information not available elsewhere, in a better form than on the other platforms, and of better quality” (Levy and Nielsen, p.1-4, 2010).

Public opinion is based on mass communication. People care about what newspapers tell them to care about. (Delia Parr, 2010). “Mass Media often have effects in changing human behaviour through stimulating interpersonal communication about a message topic. Intermedia processes occur when a mass media message leads to interpersonal communication among peers, which in turn influences behaviour change” (Rogers, 2002). Media reality can influence thoughts and beliefs very easily both positively and negatively. The audience knows a media reality, and not reality. This was improved by the phenomena of citizen journalism.

The phenomena of “citizen journalism”

A content analysis of press coverage, based on an approach by Halloran (1970) revealed that the media does not always cover the major events. In 1968 was a protest march against the Vietnam war. Only five per cent of demonstrators were involved in a confrontation, but 67 per cent of the entire reporting on the demonstration was devoted to this (Noelle-Neumann, Mathes, 1987). And just because of the selection by journalists, this part of the event becomes more important than the intrinsic importance of the events. These lapses in the performance of the traditional mass media role in the public sphere can be settled by citizen journalism (Antony, Mary Grace & Ryan J. Thomas, 2010).

For a long time audiences were actively engaged with what they read, heard and saw. However, now they are also able to “engage in the process itself: that they have access to means of content creation and dissemination that no longer necessarily constitute a system secondary to the technologies available to mainstream media organisations” (Bruns, p. 133, 2006).

“The act of a citizen, or a group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information in order to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires” describe Bowman and Willis as citizen journalism (2003). Within the change in the media landscape the viewer is thus simultaneously a user and a producer of media content.

Citizen journalism aims to challenge, complement and extend its industrial counterpart (Bruns, 2008), through extension of the breadth of journalistic coverage by reporting; improving the depth of journalistic coverage by offering a more detailed evaluation of current affairs and through extension of the on going journalistic coverage of issues over time.

Opportunity or threat?

Crisis all around the world provided an impetus to citizen journalism (Johnson, 2005). Citizen provided exclusive photos and reports. Especially during protests the role of citizen journalism becomes significant. “Since Occupy Wall Street began four weeks ago in New York City, the group has inspired protests in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago and many places in between. Aside from the theme of income inequality, the protests have a common thread in that they are well documented by the citizen journalists observing or participating in their home cities” (Jenkins, 2011).

In 2013, when the violent outbreaks in Turkey were report (in over 60 Turkish cities), mainstream media had no clue what the protests were about. The deeper vein of dissatisfaction was revealed by blogs, open letters, videos, and pictures published by citizen journalists. Especially Facebook was used as a major source of viral turkey content. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called social media “the worst menace to society” accusing citizen journalism to spread lies about the protests (Harkinson, 2013).

Within the last decade the awareness of blogging and other activities has grown as well (Rodrigues & Braham, 2008). According to Rodrigues and Braham, doubts arises about citizen journalism’s capacity “to contribute to the news-making process due to its chaotic articulation online in the form of too many voices and too many opinions, but little substance” (p. 56, 2008).

In modern times the public has the possibility to publish videos on YouTube, articles on blogs, statements in podcasts, comments on reports and much more. However, all of these publications are completely unsupervised. An analysis of the top 100 most-tweeted picture stories for The Guardian datablog showed that 15 per cent were fakes (Burgess, Vis & Bruns, 2012).

Citizen journalism based often on unprofessional writing and reporting that needs to be checked and set right. Fake photos made online rounds like during the Asian tsunami in 2004; a fake report of actor Morgan Freeman’s passing went viral on Facebook and the page dedicated to him as a tribute by his fans accrued over a million likes; another fake report about Justin Bieber who shaved his head following cancer detection went viral as well and became a major Twitter trend in the US (MapsofWorld, 2013).

As a result news outlets had to check the authenticity of what they received, before posting images and words online (Rajan, 2007). Dan Gillmor, one of the proponents of citizen journalism, thinks the growth of grass-roots journalism has been accompanied by serious ethical problems, including dubious veracity and outright deception (Gillmor, 2004). Libel and defamation could be the result of publishing incorrect portrayal, so content has to be dealt carefully.

Nevertheless, citizen journalism opens a huge opportunity in countries where mainstream media is restricted. Bruce Etling et al. (2010) say: “Around the world, in open and repressive nations alike, Internet-based communications challenge the traditional regimes of public mass communication and provide new channels for citizen voices, expression of minority viewpoints, and political mobilization.” On the other hand these platforms can also be misused for propaganda.

Many industry figures lashed out against their critics because of sustained criticism by citizen journalists. And even more: Citizen journalism sites have been established to highlight and correct perceived systematic biases in the mainstream news media (Meikle, Redden, 2011). For example the citizen journalism site Bildblog was established to site track misinformation in the German tabloid Bild ( best-selling non Asian newspaper).

The political economy of citizen journalism is in flux with large-scale commerce and advertising dollars encroaching steadily into this area (Goode, 2009). In 2005 Yahoo purchased Flickr, Google purchased in 2003 and YouTube in 2006 and MSNBC bought Newsvine in 2007. Citizen journalism contains a lot of potential that the big companies know about – it is a growing, yet still underdeveloped area.

Collaborative models like Wikipedia have already enabled it to beat its commercial contributors in breadth, depth and time, due to citizen journalists that are no longer simply consumers of contents, but are able to become active producers (Meilkle/Redden, 2011).

Ethical principles

Normally a discussion of public opinions centres on the distribution of opinions. But mass news media does not cover up all opinions that exist. The news Media decides which topics really matter to public opinion (McCombs, 2004). Topics that are not published will not be discussed. Theodore White wrote in his book ‘the making of the president’ (1960):

“The power of the press in America is a primordial one. It sets the agenda of public discussion; and this sweeping political power is unrestrained by any law. It determines what people will talk and think about – an authority that in other nations is reserved for tyrants, priests and mandarin.”

The press controls public opinion and discussion. The information that we get through media reality plays a key role in the construction of our pictures of reality (McCombs, 2004).

Even that citizen journalism often criticizes mainstream media; it also depends on such news media content for general background information (and also at least as a basis for its critical function). The mainstream media organisations still set the overall media agenda. Citizen journalists drawing some public attention to other issues and alternative views by their corrections, while at the output stage, “the work of citizen journalists has the greatest impact only when it manages to filter back into mainstream media coverage” (Meikle, Redden, p. 137, 2011). Through citizen journalism members of the public can engage in agenda setting not merely by producing original content but by rendering the agenda-setting processes (Goode, 2009).

The central role of each journalist is that of gatekeeper. They have to divide what information is worth passing along to readers and what is not (Friend, Singer, 2007). Walter Lippmann articulate the role as one of the first as a “the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision” (Lippmann, p. 352, 1922). This is a ethical public service obligation for each journalist. “The ethical principles that journalists have laid out as guidance toward an optimal way of doing their work are to seek truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently and to be accountable”, according to the Society of Professional Journalists (1996). However, there is no obligation to citizen journalism to deliver professional and well-researched content.

“The gatekeeping role gives the journalist the ability to construct public knowledge in a particular way and to ascribe particular importance to it – or not” (Friend & Singer, p. 43, 2007). Citizen journalists can influence this form of information control in a bad way. Especially because traditional journalists hold an “enlightenment view of truth as something rationally arrived at through well-tested methods” (Friend & Singer, p. 120, 2007). Something that can be seen or heard and be verified is considered as truth for them.

Bloggers have instead a different view: They see truth as “emerging from shared, collective knowledge – from an electronically enabled marketplace of ideas” (Friend & Singer, p. 121, 2007). According to Friend and Singer, truth is for blogger to create collectively rather than hierarchically. This process that citizen journalism relies on can be describes as gate watching (Bruns, 2005).

Citizen journalism sites overtly acknowledge mass media sources and use them as input for their own coverage. This is the essence of gate watching according to Brunce, then: “participants in such sites observe on a continuous basis what information passes through the gates of other news organisations, they serve as watchdogs alerting their follow participants to relevant items of information that may make useful contributions to the debate” (Meikle & Redden, p. 135, 2011).

Blogging could be seen as a force that will “blow open holes in the gatekeepers’ firewalls”, and as ending journalisms reign of “sovereignty” (Rosen, 2005). There may be a bigger interest for bloggers as well as journalists in maintaining or seeking authority than on benefiting society (Lowrey, 2006). According to Lowrey, blogging is conceptualized as a budding occupational community that “can have an impact on the system of occupations, and which is itself shaped within this system” (p. 479).

Journalists are “vulnerable to jurisdictional encroachment by bloggers “ (Lowrey, p. 491, 2006). These vulnerabilities can lead to socially beneficial change in journalistic practise. To challenge blogging, journalism organisations already begun to offer own blogs, create own social network accounts and so on.

Citizen journalism feeds the democratic imagination largely because it fosters an unprecedented potential to become part of the public sphere. “Much of the conversation generated within the sphere of citizen journalism is horizontal, that is, peer-to-peer in nature” (Goode, p.9, 2009). According to Goode, citizens are able to share, discuss and provoke in this environment but there is also still a need to account for threads of communication that run vertically within this environment: professionals, experts and elites that feed into and feed off this conversation.

Yet most citizen journalists are not paid for their efforts. Therefore they lack this incentive for the “grittier, less glamorous aspects of news work, such as tracking down sources, and attending local government meetings” (Lowrey, p. 483, 2006). Exceptions are huge YouTube channels and very famous bloggers that are repaid by their advertising. The Top 1000 channels on the YouTube platform bring in $23,000 every month in ad revenue (Faull, 2013). Traditional journalists get payments and benefits from their organizations physical capital (Lowrey, 2006). They also benefit from the organizational division of labour.


The process of newsgathering, news making and news consuming has changed a lot due to the recent technological progress. Citizen reporters managed to cover news where professional journalists could not get to the scene on time. Today it is possible for everyone – even without professional journalistic training – to create and share content. Reporting can take place everywhere, due to social networks, blogging sites and forums news. As a result distribution of breaking news is less expensive, faster and covered by a closer view.

Nevertheless, it has a greater error margin and sensationalism is inevitable with false reports often going viral. The lack of objectivity and journalistic ethics are also leading to bias news reporting. The ethics required of reporters is essential for proper news reporting.

Both forms of journalism are essential today, “citizen journalism and social information networks will flower in a marriage with enhanced professional journalism, not as a replacement for it” (Redden, Meikle, p. 65, 2011). The relationship between traditional media and citizen journalism is changing daily. Simultaneously both models learn from each other and improve themselves.


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The impact of citizen journalism on the public sphere
Griffith College Dublin
MA Journalism & Media Communication
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Journalism, Public Sphere, Citizen Journalism, Impact, Online News, Blogging, New Media
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Matthias Ritters (Author), 2015, The impact of citizen journalism on the public sphere, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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