Do citizen-based media of communication advance public journalism's ideals? Evidence from the empirical research literature.

Author:Haas, Tanni
Position::Report
 
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ABSTRACT

Drawing on the empirical research literature as well as on my own investigations, this article discusses whether some of the most significant, citizen-based media of communication--hyper-local community websites, the South Korean online newspaper OhmyNews, the collaborative online news site Wikinews, and the global Indymedia network--are advancing public journalism's ideals. It is argued, first, that while community websites and OhmyNews feature original, citizen-based news reporting, they suffer from a problematic, journalistic division of labor whereby the site staff takes on responsibility for reporting on public issues and events while citizens report on their private interests and concerns. Second, it is shown that, while Wikinews offers citizens opportunities to contribute their own news reporting on public issues and events, most of the articles consist of rewritten stories from mainstream news media and that contributors are encouraged to format those articles in conformity with mainstream news reporting conventions. Indymedia, by contrast, features original, citizen-based news reporting and commentary which counteracts that found in mainstream news media, inspires respectful interaction among citizens of different political persuasions, and promotes political activism on behalf of progressive social, political, and economic change. The article concludes by briefly summarizing the most important findings of the empirical research literature on citizen-based media of communication.

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During the past couple of years, many scholarly and journalistic observers have speculated that the proliferation of newer, citizen-based media of communication heralds the dawn of an era in which the ideals that have animated and continue to animate the public journalism movement can be advanced by citizens themselves. In contrast to public journalism's mediation of the public interest by professional journalists, observers anticipate the emergence of what Schudson (1999: 122) refers to as a "fourth model of journalism;" that is, a model of journalism "in which authority is vested not in the market, not in a party, and not in the journalist but in the public." This supposed shift from "public journalism" to the "public's journalism" (see, for example, Friedland 2003; Heinonen & Luostarinen 2005; Witt 2004) has also been referred to as "the second phase of public journalism" (see Nip 2006).

Drawing on the empirical research literature as well as on my own investigations, this article discusses whether some of the most significant, citizen-based media of communication--hyper-local community websites, the South Korean online newspaper OhmyNews, the collaborative online news site Wikinews, and the global Indymedia network--are indeed advancing public journalism's ideals. I examine, first, the modes of operation and content of so-called hyper-local community websites. I show that, while such community websites feature original, citizen-based news reporting, they suffer from a journalistic division of labor whereby the site staff takes on responsibility for reporting on local public issues and events while citizens report on their private interests and concerns. More generally, I argue, such community websites promote a problematic vision of community as a unified site bounded by shared values and goals, thereby failing to acknowledge that most contemporary communities are fragmented into multiple social groups with different, if not conflicting, interests.

Next, I consider several efforts to promote citizen-based news reporting, deliberation, and problem-solving on a much broader scale, namely the South Korean online newspaper OhmyNews, the collaborative online news site Wikinews, and the global Indymedia network. I show, first, that OhmyNews operates in terms of the same, problematic journalistic division of labor as hyper-local community websites and, more generally, that its news reporting mimics that of mainstream news media. Similarly, I show that most of the contributed articles on Wikinews consist of rewritten stories from mainstream news media and that contributors are encouraged to format those articles in conformity with mainstream news reporting conventions. By contrast, I show that Indymedia features original, citizen-based news reporting and commentary, which counteracts that found in mainstream news media, inspires respectful interaction among citizens of different political persuasions, and promotes political activism on behalf of progressive social, political, and economic change. Thus, I argue, the discourse found on Indymedia represents one of the best approximations of what a genuinely "public's journalism" might look like. I conclude with a brief summary of some of the most important findings of the empirical research literature on citizen-based media of communication.

HYPER-LOCAL COMMUNITY WEBSITES

During the past couple of years, many local news organizations (primarily local newspapers), local civic organizations, and universities in the US have created websites for residents of specific neighborhoods to engage in their own news reporting (see Dube 2007 for a listing of dozens of such websites). Many of these hyper-local community web sites have been and continue to be supported financially by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, headed by Jan Schaffer, former Executive Director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, one of public journalism's principal backers in the US, through its "New Voices" initiative (see the website of "New Voices," ).

Despite their growing popularity, only little empirical research has looked at the actual modes of operation and content of such community websites. Indeed, aside from two surveys of citizen-contributors to two university-led initiatives, the University of Missouri's MyMissourian and the University of Wisconsin's Madison Commons, only one study has been conducted to date: Nip's (2006) brief ethnographic study of the Northwest Voice.

The Northwest Voice, launched in May 2004 by the Bakersfield Californian, a local newspaper, is a community website which, as the name implies, serves the northwest neighborhood of Bakersfield, California. It is managed by a small staff consisting of a publisher, an editor, a designer, a sales & production manager, and a sales executive. Importantly, while the website is officially run according to the editorial policy that all articles relevant to the neighborhood, unless libelous, will be published with minimal editing, in reality the editorial staff has instituted a sharp separation between its own contributions (approximately 20 percent of the submitted articles) and those of local residents. While the staff has taken on responsibility for reporting on local public issues and events, residents are encouraged to contribute articles that, as Nip (2006: 224-225) puts it, revolve around their "private interests and concerns [as] parents, students and teachers" (author's emphasis). As such, Nip (2006: 225) notes, the Northwest Voice "does not seek to engage [residents] as citizens by giving them their voices on public issues." During the time frame of Nip's (2006) study (February 22--March 4, 2005), the staff reported on various local public issues and events, while posting a call for residents to submit articles on such topics as upcoming academic achievement events, fundraising events...

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