How alternative online journalism is contributing to our democracy
Classic journalism is facing a serious problem: The public’s lack of trust in it. It is certainly not a new challenge, but it seems to have become more serious over the past decade. It appears that not only the lack of high-quality journalism due to low recourses and funding but just as much the sensationalizing and click baiting by professional news organizations have contributed to this. Additionally, many people see the media as nothing more than a business, controlled by the powerful to maximize profit instead of serving as the watchdog over government and corporate authority.
The trust of its audience is the absolute core basis to the functionality of journalism. So how would citizens be able to stay informed and make informed decisions without a trustworthy supplier of news?
It seems however, that there is hope. Alternative Journalism, especially online has gained a reputation of not only trustworthiness but as the watchdog over government and corporate authority classic journalism was typically seen as. The direct involvement of citizens in content creation and the funding of specific investigations through the public provide for a different approach to journalism itself and the debate of the public sphere in modern democracies.
Could alternative journalism online provide the platform for informed citizens to debate in the public sphere and monitor state and authority?
The concept of the public sphere is based on the theory by Jürgen Habermas. It is a domain within our social life where public opinion can be formed 1. Modern mass media plays a significant role in informing the public and influencing its opinion. “The public” here refers to people in general rather than a particular group with the informed debate within the public sphere providing at least an approach to public opinion.
The model of the public sphere is certainly idealised. According to Habermas original definition, every participant would have to have access to all information and take part in every debate, which unfortunately is unrealistic. However, the concept shows the importance of a sphere independent of democratic politics and the necessity of access to information to make informed political decisions. Public discussion of private individuals rationalizes the power of governmental institutions and powerful corporations. Journalism is or was seen as the source of information for these debates and as crucial for the existence of a public sphere in general.
Changes in Journalism
According to J.Y.M. Nip, there are five genres of journalism including traditional and citizen journalism. Traditional journalism refers to the classic understanding of professional journalists who filter through the news, selecting significant events to report on. This model of journalism has dominated the mainstream media so far. Citizen journalism in comparison includes a wide range of contributors or to put it in different terms, those who were formerly described as the audience.
At the IMPRESS Trust in Journalism Conference in 2018, Chris Elliot, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network and former readers editor at the Guardian explained that “we should stop obsessing about what is a journalist. I think we should be much more thoughtful about what is journalism.”. According to him the contributions of non-conventional journalists to journalism itself is significant. Important to notice here is that not all user-generated, unfiltered content can be described as citizen journalism. Relevant pieces need to include some original work in the form of reporting, analysis or interviewing.
Thanks to the rapid technological advancements over the past decade and platforms like blogs, Twitter or YouTube, media users are now able to actively participate in content creation and analysis of current events globally and news publication online has grown immensely. Blogs focusing on a variety of themes have surfaced and challenge journalistic practices in a variety of ways 2. One might see citizen journalism as a competition or the opposition to mainstream media, as non-professionals point out regularly inaccurate reporting, close minded views or specific agendas of big news outlets. Maybe this ability comes due to its independence from these corporations.
Professionals for the most part claim that what tells them apart from non-professionals are the filtering or gatekeeping, the editorial judgement and commitment to ethical codes and professional principles 3. However, the role or the definition of what makes someone a journalist seems to be at change. While newsrooms tended to be non-transparent, new branding strategies implement audiences into content creation and analysis. The internet provides additional interaction as well as more engaging news experiences 4. Still mainly hiring professionals, who completed their undergrads or masters at universities, many outlets also implement comments, guest contributions or even regular columns from citizens, that is, non-professionals. Journalistic content has become more diverse and alternative journalism certainly has made a big contribution in this development and seems to have a significant impact on public discourse. Studies have shown that the relationship between classic journalists and citizen journalism is evolving 5. The merging or cooperation of said could provide a new, effective way for the people to engage with the public sphere.
This merging is already more common than one might expect, with direct reports from sources and witnesses that are shared online being implemented into news reporting without the necessity of a professional journalist on site. The advantage of this becomes especially obvious in crisis situations where citizens can contribute material informing and warning the public. Not only that, but there has been evidence that the there is a possibility to predict the amount of damage during a natural disaster based on tweets by affected individuals reporting on the events.
The propaganda model
One tool to understand why one may consume or produce citizen journalism as well as an approach to understanding the political economy of the media industry itself is the ‘Propaganda Model’ by Herman and Chomsky. It states that there are systemic biases within the media industry. The model views private media as business, selling their audiences rather than providing information to said. The filters Herman and Chomsky claim to exist are Ownership of the medium, the medium’s funding sources, sourcing, flak and anti-communist ideology, with the first three being the most important.
In the case of alternative journalism, there are no huge corporations standing behind the provided information with financial interests dictating a certain agenda in a profit-oriented market. The alleged bias of ownership is not relevant for this type of journalism and some might argue that therefore news from these outlets are able to be more objective, since they do not sacrifice said for the means of maximizing profit.
Mainstream media outlets rely heavily on advertising revenue. The interests of advertisers or to word it differently, funders according to Herman and Chomsky comes before the reporting of news. News therefore would be nothing more than the filler to source readers to see advertisements. Again, citizen journalism does not rely on funding by advertisers and would therefore not be subject to this filter. While some alternative journalism sources like private investigative operations still rely on funding, they trust in their (potential) readership instead of advertisers.
The third filter, sourcing, refers to continuous information flow that is necessary to meet the public’s demand for daily news. Herman and Chomsky argue that this demand can only be met by large media businesses and government sectors due to their access to the necessary resources. Through press conferences and statements, the theoretical relationship between the media and government bodies based on this would lead to an uncritical attitude. Since those who participate in citizen or alternative journalism do usually not rely on these official bodies to provide them with information and do not need to meet a demand for daily coverage, this filter has no influence on what can or would be published.
Independent websites such as MediaLens adopt this propaganda model to analyse and critique media outlets. Established in 2001, MediaLens is questioning the coverage of events and issues by the mainstream media and shows its failure to report with honesty and accuracy. It is financed by donations made by its audience and praised by journalists. Similar outlets include the Free Press, the Independent Media Center or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
It has to be mentioned here that the Propaganda model has been critiqued by a variety of experts. One argument that has come up explains that the media is not one single entity but a debate and competition between powerful institutions. Other points are made based on the fact that there are significant exposing articles regarding corporations and governments by mainstream media outlets that would not necessarily represent the agenda a profit maximizing business might have.
Advantages and Disatvantages
Alternative journalism certainly has its positives but also a few features that present problems. The big factor that is business or capitalism usually influences news outlets all over the world in their selection of stories and sources. It could be argued that with alternative and especially citizen journalism, this capitalistic filter is non-existent and therefore provides a more open platform for voices, opinions, viewpoints and unrestrained reporting. While as mentioned, a professional journalist might still crowdfund for a specific investigation or an alternative news outlet relies on its subscribed readership to fund their quality long term investigations, the main focus here lies on reporting instead of profit. The new and maybe unique perspectives that are provided by non-professionals can certainly be seen as an advantage as well. However, the lack of professional education and therefore the lack of certain filters necessary to protect the public while informing it can present challenges that do not arise in a professional journalistic environment. While citizen journalists arguably have more autonomy than professionals, the lack of editorial control is obvious. There is a scientific reasoning behind existing codes of conduct and guidelines for reporting on events like suicide that a standard citizen would not be aware of.
Citizen journalism as the potential of bringing events to the attention of mainstream media. The Oscar Grant shooting in 2009 was filmed by subway passengers on their cellphones. The reaction of the online audience to the unedited video of Frant’s death was huge. While the mainstream media initially passed on the story, they picked up on the event based on the popularity of the videos online 6. This act of active citizen journalism is poof of how significant the influence of this “new” type of journalism is in the public sphere.
Alternative journalism, referring to journalistic contributions by mainly non-processionals online could provide the public sphere with the means to monitor state as well as corporate authority through informed debate. It contributes significantly to public discussion of democracy through information, reporting or opinion, local or global. Citizen journalism at this point is found not only in private blogs and alternative news sites but finds its way in mainstream news and commercial outlets.
This merging happens not only through interaction, through comments made into news stories, photos and videos taken by “the public” but also through features by non-professionals as well as the public funding of private investigations by professional journalists.
Citizen Journalists on this point not only simply contribute as amateurs but develop a significant knowledge base, own press passes and become a crucial part of the news producing community 7. There is a potential of a certain interdependence 8 of big news outlets and citizen reporting that could be used to collectively work towards a functioning public sphere and the monitoring of government bodies.
Citizen Journalism might have been born out of a trust crisis in the mainstream news media, however with the emergence of new technologies and the implementation of citizen journalism in its traditional counterpart, it is easy to see why one would have an optimistic vision of the future public sphere.
1 Habermas, J. (1964). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. Sara Lennox, Frank Lennox. New German Critique, 3, pp. 49-55. Available at: https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/socio/files/2914/0533/6073/Habermas_1974.pdf
2 Farooq A. Kperogi, F. A. (2011) ‘Cooperation with the corporation? CNN and the hegemonic cooptation of citizen journalism through iReport.com’, new media & society 13(2), pp. 314–329. doi: 10.1177/1461444810373530.
3 Örnebring, H. (2013) ‘Anything you can do, I can do better? Professional journalists on citizen journalism in six European countries’, International Communication Gazette, 75(1), pp. 35–53. doi: 10.1177/1748048512461761.
4 Nah, S., Yamamoto, M., Chung, D. S., Zuercher, R. (2015) ‘Modeling the Adoption and Use of Citizen Journalism by Online Newspapers’, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 92(2), pp. 399-420. doi: 10.1177/1077699015574483.
5 Canter, L. (2013) ‘The source, the resource and the collaborator: The role of citizen journalism in local UK newspapers’, Journalism, 14(8), pp. 1091–1109. doi: 10.1177/1464884912474203.
6 Antony, M. G. and Thomas, R. J. (2010) ‘‘This is citizen journalism at its finest’: YouTube and the public sphere in the Oscar Grant shooting incident’, New Media & Society, 12(8), pp. 1280–1296. doi: 10.1177/1461444810362492.
7 Robinson, S. and DeShano, C. (2011) ‘’Anyone can know’: Citizen journalism and the interpretive community of the mainstream press’, Journalism, 12(8), pp. 963–982. doi: 10.1177/1464884911415973.
8 Palmer, L. (2013) ‘“iReporting” an Uprising: CNN and Citizen Journalism in Network Culture’, Television & New Media, 14(5), pp. 367–385. doi: 10.1177/1527476412446487.