Surrounded by 5 feet of water, 1,200 people were trapped at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Paula Rhinehart told her readers.
“They’re having to stack the dead bodies outside on balconies because the disease and stench could cause more health problems,” Rhinehart of Friendswood, Texas, wrote on the New Orleans Times-Picayune Web site.
Rhinehart is not a professional journalist, but she described the horrors of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath based on phone calls with her brother, who was stranded at the hospital.
Rhinehart joined hundreds of other people with no formal ties to media companies who wrote stories, posted photographs and shared videos depicting Katrina’s devastation. These reports appeared in media ranging from CNN and MSNBC to local newspapers and Web sites.
As the Katrina coverage demonstrates, 2005 was the year that much of the mainstream media began embracing participatory journalism. The Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Greensboro News & Record, Rocky Mountain News and other newspapers promoted citizen reporter Web pages. Readers and viewers, no longer content to be passive news consumers, used blogging and podcasting software, camera phones, digital video recorders and other technology to help report the news.
“It’s like watching journalism be invented all over again,” says Amy Gahran, a communications consultant who co-edits Ireporter.org.
Backers of this movement say it can reverse the media’s sagging fortunes by attracting a new generation to journalism and expanding coverage. Its critics argue that it threatens the crucial standards that professional journalists have established.
Participatory journalism goes by many names. Some call it “citizen journalism,” while others dub it “we media” or “grassroots journalism.” Dan Gillmor, the author of We the Media (O’Reilly Media, 2004), notes that this independent journalism stretches through American history from the pamphlets of Tom Paine to the investigative newsletters of I.F. Stone.
December’s tsunami in South Asia highlighted participatory journalism’s ability to cover breaking news in places with few regular reporters. Tourists and residents with digital cameras and camera phones quickly transmitted images of the disaster, and witnesses used the Web to share their stories with the world, says Steve Outing, a senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
“It doesn’t replace professional reporting, and I wouldn’t want it to do so,” Outing says. “But photos and accounts that citizens were able to give us, I think, contributed to better overall coverage.”
Citizen reporters – oh my
The crown jewel of participatory journalism is South Korea’s OhmyNews.com. The on-line news organization, which boasts more than 700,000 daily readers, has 54 staff reporters and editors, but at least 70 percent of its content comes from 39,000 citizen reporters. Its new international edition has 300 citizen reporters, according to Jean Min, director of OhMyNews’ International.
Taking a cue from OhmyNews, U.S. media companies and independent groups are launching Web sites that feature participatory journalism. They range from newspaper sites that allow readers to comment on stories to stand-alone sites that contain nothing but reports from people who aren’t professional journalists. Some sites, such as South Carolina’s Bluffton Today, take the best of its citizen reports and use them in a print edition, Outing says. In an extreme form of grass-roots journalism, practiced by Backfence.com among others, readers not only submit their own stories but can edit stories posted by others.
These participatory journalism sites offer intense local coverage that big newspapers and broadcast stations don’t always provide. K. Paul Mallasch created MuncieFreePress.com in July to cover events around the Indiana city that he thinks other media ignore. When he began going to town Council meetings in nearby Gaston, he was told he was the first reporter in several years to regularly cover the council, he says.
In its first month, MuncieFreePress attracted more than 68,000 page views, says Mallasch, who runs the site out of his apartment.
Much of what appears on “citizen journalism” sites are unedited press releases, cute pet contests and pictures from family vacations. Some critics worry that these sites will dry up revenue needed to support in-depth reporting.
But Jonathan Weber, the founder and editor in chief of NewWest.net, says the Web has the advantage of allowing people to distribute news without needing to buy printing presses or build television studios, thus requiring less revenue to be profitable.
Weber expects New West, whose number of unique viewers grew from 7,000 in March to 15,000 in August, to make enough money from advertising to turn a profit by the end of next year. He can look for inspiration to OhmyNews, which made more than $500,000 last year, Min says.
The Internet generation
Weber and other participatory journalists say they are responding to the media’s increasing concentration in the hands of a few owners. “There’s been a pent-up demand for media choices,” Weber says.
Improved technology makes this response feasible. Now more than half of Internet users are connected via broadband, which speeds the transfer of information, according to a Carnegie Corporation report released this spring.
By the end of last year, two-thirds of all U.S. households had a mobile phone, according to Forrester Research. And more than half of all U.S. households are expected to own a digital camera by the end of this year, according to Photo Marketing Association International.
The digital generation that grew up using the Web and playing video games expects its media to be interactive and is turning away from traditional ways of getting the news. Among 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed for the Carnegie report, 44 percent used Internet portals at least once a day for news compared with 37 percent for local television, 19 percent for newspapers and 16 percent for broadcast networks.
But it’s not just young people who are attracted to participatory journalism. After 47 years running a car dealership, Hank McFarland of Rye, N.H., retired and began writing stories for RyeReflections.org, a new community Web site. So far, McFarland has written about the town’s annual frog-jumping contest and interviewed the cemetery superintendent.
“The kind of subjects I cover wouldn’t be in The New York Times, but people who are keyed into the local scene want to read it,” McFarland says.
Like many citizen journalists, McFarland takes his own photos. So many people now carry camera phones and digital cameras that it’s easy for them to share pictures of events they witness.
As portable phones get better at transmitting videos, more people will start contributing to broadcast news, the Poynter Institute’s Outing predicts. New England Cable News has started asking viewers to send in videos to air on the station’s Web site and possibly its broadcasts.
The station hopes the citizen content will expand its coverage of local politics and breaking news, says Steve Safran, its digital media director. For example, when a storm cut off the town of Hull from news crews, a resident sent in a video of the damage he took with a camera phone, Safran says.
Participatory journalism builds trust, Safran says. “This is a way for us to say we don’t know everything,” he explains.
Current TV, a cable and satellite network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, is taking that idea to a national level by bringing viewer-created videos to 20 million homes. In the first month after its Aug. 1 launch, about a quarter of Current’s content came from its viewers, says Laura Ling, manager of the network’s Vanguard News department.
While some of Current’s content consists of light-hearted looks at fashion and music, other videos focus on news topics such as medical marijuana and the use of fake identity cards by immigrants. One citizen journalist, Adrian Baschuk, contributed reports on the Israeli pull-out from Gaza.
“He was literally feeding us those stories through Instant Messenger,” Ling says.
Citizen reports also are being shared through podcasting, which allows anyone with a computer and microphone to create audio that can be downloaded to MP3 players and iPods throughout the world. Podcasting has grown so quickly that one Web site — PodcastAlley.com — featured nearly 7,000 podcasts by September, more than double the number it had in April.
Most podcasts have nothing to do with journalism, but some report news. In August, Kerry Keel and Jackie Putnam of Decatur, Ala., started a podcast called “Crohn’s Talk.” Every week they discuss information about Crohn’s disease gathered from research journals and news articles while sharing Keel’s experiences living with the illness.
Keel, who’s spent about $150 to produce her podcast, estimates only 80 people a week downloaded each of her first few shows, but she thinks she can make a difference in their lives.
Like many people involved in participatory journalism, Keel doesn’t consider herself a reporter, but she follows the steps any good one would take.
“I’m a real person, not a doctor, taking medical information and making it more understandable,” Keel says. “I do my own research from sources I can trust. I try to make sure I can back up what I’m saying.”
People such as Keel bring fresh voices and specialized knowledge to journalism, Ireporter’s Gahran says. “Sometimes people from different backgrounds can do excellent work,” she observes. “A lot of people with expertise can bring great context to issues.”
They also can put the heat on professional journalists. The investigative energy of Web loggers, better known as bloggers, put the spotlight on missteps by former CNN Executive Vice President Eason Jordan and CBS anchorman Dan Rather.
Vincent Maher, a new media lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa, says that in many instances, such as the first London bombings this summer, ordinary people scoop the pros “simply because, like ants, there are a lot of them all over the place, and a lot of them have personal media devices with them at the time.” But without going through an editorial process that validates the information, it isn’t true journalism, Maher wrote in an e-mail.
This lack of verification leads to one of participatory journalism’s greatest vulnerabilities: the possibility of mistakes and mischievousness. After December’s tsunami, for instance, fake photos circulated the Web claiming to be pictures of the actual catastrophe.
In June, the Los Angeles Times learned this lesson the hard way when it experimented with “wikitorials” that allowed readers to rewrite the paper’s editorials online. It closed the site after three days when some viewers posted obscene photos and language, according to CNET News.
NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says this kind of mischief can produce real harm, pointing to an incident in May when bloggers posted confidential U.S. military information that could put lives in danger.
Dvorkin also says the expanding number of media voices, some of them highly partisan and strident, risks creating fractured audiences.
“I’m worried that information will become so fragmented that the idea of people having shared information about the world is disappearing,” he says.
But advocates of participatory journalism argue that it will only strengthen democracy by getting more people involved in the media.
“If you believe in a democratic society and freedom of the press, I don’t see how you can look at citizen journalism and say it’s a bad thing,” says Rich Gordon, chairman of the newspapers and new media department at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “It’s the most democratic system of publishing ever.”
As technology continues to advance and more advertising money streams toward the Web, participatory journalism is likely to keep mushrooming.
“Whether mainstream journalists participate or not, citizen journalism is still going to exist,” Gordon says. “The trends that led to citizen journalism are inexorable and probably accelerating.”
Jon Marshall teaches reporting and writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is the creator of NewsGems.blogspot.com.