Citizen-journalists reshape the media
Traditional publications are trying to enlist readers into news gathering
In South Korea, citizen journalists played a key role in the election of President Roh Moo-hyun. In London, they provided the only glimpses of the horrors of the dark, smoke-filled tunnels after the bomb attacks last year. And in Hong Kong, they produced inside accounts of the protests against the WTO conference in December.
Their impact may vary but citizen journalists the world over are transforming the traditional media 'audience' of readers, listeners and viewers into an army of reporters, editors and broadcasters. They are forcing newspapers, television and radio to accommodate wider participation in the previously closed process of news gathering.
The problem lies in deciding which of the emerging models to adopt.
South Korea's OhmyNews is often cited as the most successful pioneer of citizen journalism. The brainchild of journalist Oh Yeon-ho was founded five years ago as an 'end to 20th century journalism', and since then has been credited with securing the election of President Roh and turning South Korea's media landscape on its head.
'There are some Korea-specific reasons why OhmyNews has taken off, such as a widespread rejection of Korea's ultraconservative traditional media,' OhmyNews international director Jean Min told the South China Morning Post.
'But there is also a universal desire among web users to turn the internet into more of a two-way conversation. This was not fully realised from the beginning [of the internet] but is much more accepted now.'
OhmyNews publishes reports from more than 41,000 citizen reporters alongside the work of its 60 professional reporters and editors. Profitable since November 2003, the site attracts 700,000 repeat visitors in a day and recently secured US$11 million in funding from Japan's Softbank to expand OhmyTV in South Korea, and launch sites modelled on OhmyNews abroad, beginning with Japan.
'I think of the site as a combination of professionalism and amateurism,' Mr Min said, adding that the site was popular because it applied professional editing to amateur content.
But OhmyNews' decision to maintain editorial control over the reports cuts to the heart of the debate on how citizen reporting should be treated. Proponents of editorial control say retaining trained reporters and editors enhances the respect among readers and viewers for the content, and safeguards journalistic values.
Others, however, see citizen reporting as an extension of the blogging phenomenon, which thrives on the ability of anyone, anywhere to write their opinions and reach a wide audience over the internet.
'Blogging is more of an individual process, where you might write about personal issues in your daily life or comment on an issue that is important to you,' said Lam Oi-wan, editor of citizen media site InMediaHK. 'Bloggers don't normally go out and report something, whereas citizen reporting is all about listening to others, meeting people face to face and writing about what they have to say.'
InMediaHK.net was founded in November 2004 on concerns about freedom of expression following the resignation of Commercial Radio host Albert Cheng King-hon and about the direction of democracy in Hong Kong after successive July 1 protests. The site has 2,000 registered users, more than 300 regular columnists and about 12 citizen reporters.
Ms Lam said the site differed in its attitude towards editorial control, not simply because OhmyNews was commercial but also due to the checks and balances that exist in InMediaHK's community of users.
'Ethics have developed out of the interaction among users,' she said. 'If there is misinformation or a personal attack posted on the site, other users will point it out and push their colleagues not to destroy the platform by including that kind of content.'
The no-control model also extends to the way InMediaHK's citizen reporters are encouraged to write their stories, resulting in a reporting style that differs from the usual content of mainstream newspapers. This was apparent in the reporting on the WTO conference in Hong Kong, when 10 citizen reporters were encouraged to join various groups, including the Taiwanese and South Korean protestors, to get inside accounts of the events as they unfolded.
'In the beginning, most of the reporters did not have a position on the issues, but over the reporting process they came to sympathise with the groups they followed,' Ms Lam said.
This contradicts the detached, objective approach that is drummed into all reporters from the beginning of their careers in traditional news organisations.
'Even the mainstream media is not always objective because they usually get their news sources from formal channels,' Ms Lam said. 'Citizen reporters have their own way of collecting information because formal channels won't talk to them - their knowledge and reporting is, therefore, more subjective.'
Faced with two different visions of citizen media - one combining citizen and professional reporting to create a product capable of competing directly with traditional media, the other catering to a new generation of internet users preferring 'the wisdom of the crowds' to third-party editing - newspapers, radio and television stations have been slow to adapt to include more audience participation.
'The idea of including the public ... in news gathering seems like pandering to public opinion at best and abandonment of our mission to inform and of our journalistic values at worst,' said Michael Skoler, managing director of news at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), describing the internal debate at many news organisations in the latest edition of Nieman Reports.
Nevertheless, MPR believes that including listeners in some part of the production process is a vital step for the organisation going forward.
'Faced with the need to expand our news gathering capabilities, there were really two options - hire a bunch of new reporters or tap into the collective audience to inform us on the stories we do,' said Andrew Haeg, senior producer for the Public Insight Journalism project at MPR. 'The public radio audience is smart, engaged and educated.'
MPR's model uses a database of listeners categorised by their knowledge of a particular subject, compiled by their answers to questions posted online. The database now runs to 13,000 contacts and has contributed to more than 100 stories in the past three years.
'The listeners come to us out of a sense of altruism because we engaged them online or asked them a question that connects with their expertise,' Mr Haeg said. 'On the occasions when a reporter gets a hunch from a single conversation and needs to find out quickly if it is a genuine trend, we can help connect the dots.'
Mr Haeg acknowledged that extending the system - essentially a larger version of a traditional reporter's phone tree - to one where listeners dictate the choice of stories on air would be more difficult to achieve given the typical unwillingness of editors to abandon the traditional model.
WangYou Media, a mainland firm whose business model is based on user-generated content, is an early example of how even radio stations can incorporate amateur content via podcasts. The company has partnered with 60 radio stations in China to broadcast the best podcasts and user material - as voted for by users - submitted to its online portal Wangyou.com.
But such examples remain rare.
Neil Thurman, a senior journalism lecturer at City University, London said the trend in Britain was moving both ways. While the BBC and The Guardian had embraced user contributions, others such as The Independent had removed readers' bulletin boards on the grounds they were time-consuming and difficult to moderate.
Commercial organisations clearly have a different set of considerations for what they are willing to include under their brand name, but if internet-generated user habits are evolving even without traditional media involvement, can they afford to resist?
Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, thinks not. 'No journalism organisation, no matter how big it is, knows as much about a particular topic as the people who read or listen to it,' he said.
'That doesn't mean that there is no longer a role for journalists - there is still a huge role. But in a world that is moving away from a lecture to a conversation, it makes sense for there to be more participation from the audience.'