Giving credit where it’s due: The value of citizen journalism in the U.S. media landscape
To know the value of citizen journalism is to know the story of Ida B. Wells and how her work still influences the citizen journalists of our time
Earlier this month, an interaction on Twitter between two New Jersey journalists caught my eye. It was, at its essence, about who gets to call themselves a “journalist.”
NJ Spotlight News anchor and senior political correspondent David Cruz posted a tweet discounting citizen journalism and declaring that it “ain’t a thing.” WHYY reporter and Black in Jersey founder Tennyson Donyea disagreed.
That exchange — and other replies on the thread—started a conversation amongst my colleagues and I at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
As I left work that day, my mind kept drifting back to Ida B. Wells.
Ida B. Wells was a citizen journalist
Wells started as a teacher, then became a member of a local literary club in Memphis and began writing about developments impacting the local Black community. Her columns were featured in Black newspapers across the country including the New York Age, Detroit Plaindealer, and the Chattanooga Justice. In 1889 she became co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight where she continued to write about issues of race and gender discrimination. Her editorials criticized Memphis’ segregated school system and subsequently, she lost her teaching job.
This change in circumstance further stoked her activism and pushed Wells to embark on a new career in journalism.
In 1892 her close friend, Thomas Moss, and two associates were murdered after the grocery store they opened began to compete with the business of a white-owned shop across the street. She channeled her outrage and grief into incisive prose about Jim Crow laws and sanctioned lynchings that terrorized Black communities in the South. And she challenged the myth of lynchings as justifiable punishment for crimes committed by Black men and women. It was not long before the paper was shuttered and Wells and her partner were driven out of Memphis.
These injustices would be the catalyst for Wells’ greatest contributions to journalism: She began to research and document the lynching of Black people in the South, writing “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” in 1892. The pamphlet established Wells as the forebearer of the anti-lynching movement in the United States. And her work, “A Red Record,” which analyzed nationwide press coverage and statistics of lynchings since the end of the Reconstruction Era, stands as a then-unprecedented example of longform and data-driven reporting in the U.S.
Yes, Wells’ work is rooted in protest and civil rights advocacy. No, she never received any formal education on how to be a reporter.
Nonetheless, her meticulous journalism positioned Wells among the earliest and more celebrated Black journalists — journalists, period — in U.S. history. Wells was a pioneer of data investigation long before this discipline formally existed—and years before the hallowed institutions of journalism we know today were founded in this country.
Wells’ exemplary citizen journalism and legacy are carried forward today by local storytellers and community journalists who are driven to share narratives of consequence that simply are not given space in mainstream media.
Examples of pivotal citizen journalism are numerous: the coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami by bloggers and photographers, on-the-ground updates from locals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and live streamed or live-tweeted coverage of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
Despite her seminal contributions, Ida B. Wells was called a liar and was discouraged by her contemporaries. For one, as a feminist and abolitionist, her writings were well-steeped in the communities she deeply identified with or called her own. And as a Black woman born into slavery and who had lived to see Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the backlash that followed in the Jim Crow South, many of the injustices she documented took place nearby or mirrored her own experiences.
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Wells was subjected to a perceived lack of credibility among her peers. And this line of criticism, particularly because of a reporter’s proximity to a subject, is something community journalists continue to face to this day. It’s something that needs to change in order to support thriving, informed communities, and a more robust, inclusive press.
Defining citizen journalism and contributing factors
Citizen journalism predates institutionalized journalism by far. It bears repeating here that newspapers were in print and circulation long before the nation’s first journalism school opened its doors at the University of Missouri in 1908. This development gave rise to journalism standards, which funneled the creation of mainstream journalism which often excludes the perspectives of marginalized groups. The institution also divided professional and citizen journalists.
Depending on who you ask, the differences between these forms of journalism vary but — assuming both share the goals of exposing the truth and promoting accountability — the differences hinge on issues of access and power (Who gets to be a journalist?), credentials, objectivity, and perspective.
Traditional journalism or mainstream media refers to established broadcasting or publishing outlets across various mediums that strive for objective and unbiased reporting conducted by professionally trained journalists. On the other hand, citizen journalism relies more on platforms such as blogs, newsletters, and social media to share reports produced by non-professional journalists and is not as constrained by the goal of objectivity that arguably eludes traditional media. Citizen journalism accounts are typically first-hand, and sometimes uncensored or edited, while the perspective of traditional journalism is that of the outsider.
Technological advancements have increased the speed of news and content production, as well as the public’s ability to access information. The shrinking media landscape has contributed to the rise of citizen journalism. And as networks consolidate and local newsrooms close or are bought out by large corporations, consumers increasingly turn to social media outlets and alternative news sources. Media consolidation has also fueled public distrust of mainstream media, which, driven by profit, neglects local news coverage of significance to diverse and underserved communities.
According to the Pew Research Center, “half of U.S. adults get news at least sometimes from social media.” In addition, a recent study shows that more than half of U.S. adults think news organizations do not understand people like them. And, according to Pew researchers, 51 percent of Americans say they have little to no confidence that journalists act in the best interests of the public.
The need for citizen journalism
“It is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” — Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892)
Citizen journalism is from the perspective of people who are close to the story. This reporting often arises from a need to counter false or exclusive narratives as told by a media industry dominated by the perspectives of wealthy white men who own the majority of news companies.
For instance, the Black Press which launched in New York with Freedom’s Journal in 1827, provided an outlet for Black writers and spoke to the issues and concerns of their readership. And according to Nieman Reports, “during the 1920s and 30s, when major papers virtually ignored black America, the glory days of the black press began.”
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Here in New Jersey, we’ve seen citizen journalism emerge as a driving force in our local news ecosystem. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has supported citizen journalism efforts in the state. For instance, in 2012, the newly-founded Center partnered with Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN) on #NJSandy, a collaborative reporting effort that trained and supported citizen journalists to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. This partnership demonstrated how citizen journalism can complement traditional news outlets and provide valuable coverage of important events.
More recently, the Center has launched the South Jersey Information Equity Project (SJIEP) which shares news produced by and for communities of color. SJIEP supports citizen and professionally trained journalists to hone their reporting skills while contributing to Black-owned local outlets and sharing stories missed by mainstream media based outside of South Jersey. Additionally, the Stories Invincible initiative focuses on restorative narratives in Camden as a tool for sharing community experiences and addressing information needs.
The merits and limitations of citizen journalism
While these lists are by no means exhaustive, it’s useful to recognize the merits of citizen journalism alongside major criticisms of this participatory work. As a journalism school graduate, a proponent of citizen journalism, and a local news enthusiast, the below attributes and criticisms help to inform my work and provide ground for further learning.
The strengths of citizen journalism include its potential to:
- Allow for more voices to be heard in the media landscape.
- Increase diversity in news coverage and call attention to underrepresented issues.
- Report on stories that traditional news outlets may not cover.
- Lead to faster reporting and breaking news.
- Help foster a more democratic and participatory media environment.
Opponents of citizen journalism would point out that the practice can also:
- Lead to inaccurate reporting due to limited training and professional standards
- Present difficulties in ensuring ethical standards and verifying the credibility of citizen journalists and their sources.
- Rely on the limited resources of citizen journalists who may not have access to the same resources or connections as traditional journalists.
- Pose a risk of including a journalist’s bias or personal opinion
- Endanger citizen journalists and newsrooms that may not have the same legal protections as traditional journalism
These concerns are valid, and some, given the erosion of public trust in news media, also speak to the failings of traditional journalism to abide by its own standards and — from coverage to hiring practices — truly include and reflect the people it serves.
Continuing the work, moving past the rhetoric
To dismiss citizen journalism, despite its manifold contributions to public discourse and underserved communities and its focus on local news, which we’ve seen correlates with increased civic participation, is to stand against the pioneering journalists of this generation.
Those quick to trivialize citizen journalism must contend with the works of Wells and citizen journalists whose remarkable works sprang from and address societal needs and injustices. It’s a kind of short-sightedness that reduces capability and potential to just credentials or years of practice.
Training can and does help to bolster credibility, though. And if that’s the primary distinction between citizen journalists and journalists who’ve received formal instruction, then the next step for those with said training and resources, who want to protect the future and credibility of journalism, would be to share their wisdom and access and help to train and elevate the voices of those seeking to leverage media to inform and serve their communities.
Cassandra Etienne is the assistant director for membership and programming at the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund and the NJ Civic Information Consortium. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.