Community Reporting and Citizen Journalism

Introduction

Citizen journalism and community reporting are terms that have grown up out of the social media developments over the last decade or so. The ability of the ‘ordinary person on the street’ to create and distribute their own content has increased exponentially over the last decade. Factors for this include technological developments that have reduced the price and increased the availability of user-friendly content capture devices, such as Flip cameras and mobile phones, alongside the absorption into popular consciousness of free distribution sites such as Youtube and Facebook.

The result of this production is certainly a lot of footage of sneezing animals and laughing babies but there is also more depth and heart to the application of these social media tools, and this is the ground held by citizen journalists and community reporters.

In this article, I want to explore how and when these terms might be used interchangeably and to explore the subtle but important differences that distinguish where in the Venn diagram these terms don’t cross.

Building the Venn Diagram – News and Stories

Citizen Journalism is defined in We Media as, “public citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing, and disseminating news and information." i

Popular examples of citizen journalism breaching the mainstream media on an international and national field include the Arab spring uprising, the Occupy movement or the commentary in the blogosphere that tracked the summer riots in the UK. The influence can also be felt at a local level, where there are numerous examples of community blogging sites reporting on causes and campaigns, a role formerly championed by a local press now heavily in decline ii. From both the formal and informal interpretations of Citizen Journalism, one message seems to come through more clearly than others: the relationship to news. The term seems to relate to ordinary people creating, reporting from or commenting on key newsworthy events. It is this close relationship to traditional journalism that has led to some professional journalists criticising, “the unregulated nature of citizen journalism…for being too subjective, amateurish, and haphazard in quality and coverage.” iii By sharing the term ‘journalism’, there seems to be an in-built expectation from the mainstream that citizen journalists should be maintaining the standards and mimicking the guidelines by which professional trained journalists tell their ‘news’. In reality though, individual citizen journalists can enjoy the freedoms of telling their stories in their own ways using social media to do so – and the results can therefore be wide-ranging in efficacy, effect and form.

And how does all of this relate to our definition of Community Reporting? Well, the principal starting point for Community Reporting as we define it is story. And why story rather than news? Well, as Owen Flanagan puts it, “Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers.”iv

Story can be the means by which we work out our thoughts and ideas about who we are and how we connect to those around us. It can be an exploration, a search for meaning or an offering up to others. From a community development point of view, story is an extremely useful tool for helping people to locate themselves in their own lives and their communities. And more importantly, it is universal and there are no prerequisites required in order to tell a story. We all have something to say and stories to tell about our lives and this is our starting point for Community Reporting. From here, we support people through a process of refining communication, developing new skills, thinking more about the audience for their stories and the impact they want those stories to have. Some of the stories that Community Reporters tell might be considered ‘newsworthy’, but the heart of Community Reporting is in individuals telling stories about their own lives rather than reporting on news, an approach that serves to benefit both the individual and the community. As Simon Safari, Chair of the Tenants' Association in Botkyrka, Stockholm says, “I believe that we need more thinking to create sustainable communities, and [giving people] the right to describe their own reality is one of them.” v

To finish this section, let’s consider an example. An asylum seeker fighting for their right to stay in a country, challenging a court decision or arguing injustice, is a news story. There is human interest and a clear trajectory of beginning, middle and end; they arrived, there was a ruling, there will be a final outcome. The news story will end when they are either deported or gain leave to remain. Community Reporting however is more interested in all the other stories that make up the person at the centre of the news…and to give them the tools and the platform to share those stories. So we might learn about the foods that remind them of home, or their bemusement at how we shop in large supermarkets, or even better, they might just want to tell a story about the sports day at their children’s local school. This is true integration and true empowerment and our hope is that it can contribute to the vision of ‘sustainable communities’ for all. And so we start to build the Venn diagram: news on one side, story on the other.

Populating the Venn Diagram – Motivation

Everyone has their own unique set of reasons for getting involved – and then remaining or otherwise involved – in the production of user-generated content, whether they classify themselves as a Citizen Journalist, Community Reporter, neither or both. For some, it is the cause that drives them, for others it is a passion for words or media. The stimulus may be politics or creativity, fun or fury. We are all unique. But for the sake of clarification around the term ‘Community Reporting’ as we understand it, it is necessary to draw some broad generalisations to illustrate the point of difference.

The key difference for us is that many people who are classed or class themselves as being Citizen Journalists are ‘self-referrers’. By this we mean that they are self-motivated to create and promote their own content, often setting up their own blog sites vi or contributing to established sites such as the Indymedia movement vii. They are likely to already have the technical and communication skills required for effective reporting and have access to equipment with which to create their content. They often have a passionate grasp of their field and can be eloquent and intelligent in the presentation of their arguments. Motivation can be the desire to influence change, draw attention to a cause, hold individuals or bodies to account or inform people of a situation. People contribute because they care.

This is all well and good where people have confidence in their own opinions and access to basic equipment but where either of these elements is missing it can take an outside stimulus to plug the gap. And this is where Community Reporting comes in.

Community Reporting, as we define it, is a model that was born out of wanting to ‘plug the gap’ between people’s desire and ability to have a voice in the world. Developed through many years working in community development, it supports community empowerment through informal learning and can put people on the first rung of active citizenship and participation.

The model has the flexibility to work with diverse groups, such as refugees and asylum seekers, adults with mental health problems, young people with learning difficulties, isolated older people, University students or school educators. viii For our Community Reporters, the first stimulus for involvement is often not so much about a cause or an issue but more the desire to learn new skills, to feel more connected to their local community or to give something back. As one Reporter puts it, “It’s given me a routine, confidence, something to talk about when I’m out with my friends which I didn’t have when I wasn’t doing much. It is sort of opening up my life very quickly, that’s what’s been good.”ix

People’s motivations for engaging with Community Reporting are only part of the process however. The ultimate goal, and the reflection of true participation, is when Community Reporters have the confidence and ability to keep on telling and sharing stories about their lives and communities, long after the initial engagement. And this takes us on to a sense of belonging.

Populating the Venn Diagram – Belonging

As we mentioned previously, people have very different start and end points when it comes to producing user-generated content. It might be a one-off or part of a professional vocation. A hobby can sometimes become the job, or a campaign can succeed in its aim and the need to create content diminishes. For citizen journalists who are aligned to a particular cause or community, chasing and reporting key news and events will be the driver for content production. In the case of Community Reporters though, we have said that the motivation and start point is generally neither news nor a cause. So what keeps our Community Reporters motivated and engaged? The answer is a sense of belonging.

Because our ultimate goal is to create a network of Community Reporters who can all produce their own content, share it with others, learn from others and feel part of something, it is vitally important that we support people throughout the process. This support ideally comes from a variety of different routes; at a network level it comes from the Institute of Community Reporters, at a local level there should be support from a local provider, and reporters are also supported in running their own self-managed meet-ups, so they can come together to collaborate, share and champion each other’s involvement.

The Institute of Community Reporters was established as the quality assurance arm of the network. All Community Reporters receive a badge as part of the network and this badge reflects that they have studied a range of Best Practice guidelines, including adherence to Editorial Guidelines, an understanding of consent, Health and Safety, copyright etc. This badge plays an important role in welcoming people into the wider network and it denotes a status that many of our reporters enjoy! The Institute also provides opportunities for reporters to get involved in projects, provides on-going training support via web tutorials and brings all reporters together at an annual Award Ceremony. This all continues to help people feel valued and supported in the work they do and is a wonderful way for people to create new networks and friendships, and learn from the activity happening in other communities.

At a local level, support can often be more hands on – lending equipment to reporters who don’t have their own kit, supporting them with access to computers for edit and upload, troubleshooting, or providing ideas for local events that reporters can attend. We know from our experience that many of the Community Reporters we work with often have quite complex needs so this local presence is important to ‘be there’ and respond as required. Often this is about simple reassurance and encouragement – a small but important factor in our model of Community Reporting.

Whilst we recognise that people may often have complex needs, we are committed to supporting people to become more confident through their Community Reporting activity than they were at the start. We therefore structure our training around a peer learning and peer review system that takes an asset based community development approach. We positively celebrate the diverse range of personal and technical skills that people need to be reporters and encourage self-assessment of these skills at the outset. Our trainers do not claim to be experts and encourage learners to contribute their thoughts and ideas. Finally, all content produced by reporters throughout their training is peer reviewed within the group which allows them to develop a visual and spoken vocabulary to help them feel more confident in their reporting. We adopt this approach as peer support is more effective in the long term than a tutor support mechanism – the tutor may leave after the preliminary sessions but the reporters will remain to be their own support network. We therefore discuss with the group roles and responsibilities required for them to continue to meet on a monthly basis, creating ownership and belonging at a hyper local level.

Whilst we recognise that there are some invaluable support networks for Citizen Journalists, these often tend to be online resources, virtual Twitter networks or groups that gather around thematic interests. Again, by understanding that our Community Reporters tend not to self-refer to these groups, we feel that we have created an alternative model that best fills the support needs for our reporters. And so we reach the final stop on the development of our Venn diagram; regulation.

 

Populating the Venn Diagram – Regulation

Developments in social media seem to happen with gazelle like speed. One day no-one has heard of Twitter, the next, mainstream journalists are using it to source major news events and we’re all comfortable in the parlance of tweeting. Sites come and go, adapt, change, disappear. Smart phones are crammed with apps that allow us to engage with the world with lightning speed. And now imagine the speed with which the legislature can change, make or adapt laws to keep up. Gazelle like? Certainly not.

So we have a perceived gap between what we can technically do and what we can legally do. And in this gap, many ordinary people have been blithely carrying on, blogging and tweeting, sharing stories, commenting on things of interest on the web. And whilst this may have felt like an unregulated wild west, it appears that the sheriff is fighting back and the law is starting to challenge the sense of untouchability that has informed the way many people seem to interact with social media sites.x

For some campaigners, there is an important issue here about the freedoms we should have the right to exercise without being policed by ‘Big Brother’. And whilst that is an interesting arena for all who create and share user-generated content, we take a different stance when it comes to our Community Reporters. As part of the standards monitored by the Institute of Community Reporters we issue badges to reporters, as mentioned above. In order to receive the badge, all reporters must go through training around Best Practice guidelines. Without going into detail, the over-arching tone of these guidelines is: If in doubt, don’t. If challenged, cooperate. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The important point is that the guidelines are there to protect the wider community rather than focussing on the rights of the individual. And this is something that we encourage our reporters not to simply adhere to but to celebrate. It’s an important point and something we take very seriously. And so there we have it, the last differentiator on the Venn diagram.

Conclusion – analysing the circles

In conclusion, we hope that we have explained what we feel to be some of the major differences between Citizen Journalism and Community Reporters. Reclaiming the term is really important to us because for us it means family. It’s a network of people joined together by a common set of goals and values, sharing their successes and frustrations and learning from each other in the process. We hope to see the network grow and the model continue to support more of the kind of people who wouldn’t traditionally create content for the web into the wonderful world of content creation, where their stories and views count, and where they feel ultimately more connected to the world around them.

References

Published in Social Learning and WEB 2.0 Community Reporting for Social Inclusion 2012 ISBN 978-84-9921-369-9