Citizen Journalism or a Message Board?

Two weeks ago we set out some guidelines for distinguishing between “participatory journalists,” who send information and photos in to edited news sites, and “citizen journalists,” who write their own news articles and post them on unedited sites. The need for such a distinction comes in response to major newspapers’ recent tendency to point to anything published online and vaguely involving the news as just another example of the massive explosion that is citizen journalism. Our fear: Perhaps this “explosion” only seems so huge because the vague definition of “citizen journalism” allows newspapers to yield the term with minimal discretion.

It looks like the people over at the Washington Post missed our item. Yesterday the Post ran a front-page article headlined “Do-It-Yourself Journalism Spreads: Web Sites Let People Take News Into Their Own Hands.” The article focuses on the Web site Your Mom, which the article’s author, Ariana Eunjung Cha, credits as becoming “an experiment in ‘citizen journalism,’ in which people who live in a community get involved in reporting on it.”

So was Cha’s use of this ubiquitous term appropriate? Does Your Mom actually give community members the purported ability to report on their area? We decided to take a closer look at the newest addition to the “Check it out, citizen journalism is everywhere!” pool and find out.

Upon entering the Your Mom site, we were greeted with a large animation of a guy “popping the collar” of his bright orange Polo shirt, followed by the question “To pop or not to pop?” Clicking on the collar took us to the lead article — or rather, irate rant — about how annoying it is when people pop their collars. That’s it. That’s the story. Citizen journalism at its finest?

Below the 350-word story are another 1,800 words of comments, 1,000 of which are just spam that one guy posted to get back at the person who told him to “shut up.” Other than that, the comments are what you would expect — Dan argues “Popped collars are stupid and make you look like a dumbass,” Angela writes “I think it looks hott [sic] on guys,” and those without strong opinions chime in with comments that people are taking the article “wayy [sic] too seriously.”

The botched spellings, faceless confrontations, and use of spam to exact revenge are all things we’ve seen before. They’re the stuff of Internet communication. So just what sets Your Mom aside from all the other blogs with unedited commentary on inconsequential topics? Where’s the journalism these citizens have produced?

We tried out the “news” tab up top to see what these amateur field reporters had delivered. True to form, this “citizen journalism” site delivers news focused on the local community along with highlights from news of national import. But where it falls short is the bylines, which almost all have either Quad-City Times or Associated Press tacked on. A few articles (such as this one) follow the author’s name with “For the Times.” We have no idea what that means — when the article is from the Quad-City Times, it says that, so is “For the Times” a different newspaper? A shorthand for Quad-City Times stringers? — and since neither the phrase nor the author is hyperlinked, we have no quick way of finding out.

More sloppy attribution awaits in the movie reviews section. Three reviews have the byline “Beau Baumbach, Davenport North,” while the “Batman Begins” review is by “Beau Baumbach, Davenport Central.” Again, there are no links to give us clues, but a quick Google search shows that both Davenport North and Davenport Central are high schools. Why, then, is Beau affiliated with both? Does the high school name mean that the review was published in the school paper? That the author attends the school? Or graduated from it? Or is Beau a Quad City Times reporter who runs from high school to high school to review movies? Beats us!

The one non-Beau piece currently posted in the movies section is a review of “Bewitched” with the byline: “By Los Angeles Times.” We had to go in through the Los Angeles Times Web site to find out the actual author of the piece (Carina Chocano) and the day it was originally posted (June 24, 2005) — information that was missing from the Your Mom version. In fact, even the articles yanked from the AP or local papers and slapped on Your Mom only say when the post was last updated, not when the piece was originally written. And in all cases, Your Mom fails to provide links to the original articles.

So it seems that this site being lauded by the Post as a great experiment in citizen journalism is missing two critical elements: the use of hyperlinks — something so basic that even stodgy news sites have it down — and a dominating presence of actual articles written by people other than professional journalists.

When people talk about citizen journalism, they are not (and should not be) talking about everyday people writing their grievances about the latest fashion trend or what new album they totally loved. That sort of online opinion sharing is as old as chat rooms and message boards. In the Washington Post article about Your Mom, Jan Schaffer, the executive director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park, describes the roots of citizen journalism as tapping into “an increasing appetite among ordinary people to participate in the news.”

So we have the academic definition of “citizen journalism” — “ordinary people participating in the news” or “people who live in a community get[ting] involved in reporting on it” — and then we have the examples of “citizen journalism” being cited in major news outlets, which are more along the lines of ordinary people posting unsupported opinions or people involved in an accident posting photos and anecdotes.

The two don’t exactly match up. Either that’s because the major newspapers aren’t doing a good job finding examples of the sweeping trend of which they speak, or else maybe, just maybe, the real change is not how many people are participating in online forums for venting about and discussing current happenings, but rather how giants like the New York Times and Washington Post choose to mislabel them.

It’s possible that citizen journalism really is the hottest trend. But we’re still waiting for the article that can show us solid examples of it in action.

Samantha Henig

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.