In both local and national coverage of Ferguson I’ve seen a shift in how journalists approach participatory media in conflict areas. Citizen journalism was central to the Occupy protests a few years ago, but it largely remained separate and distinct from the mainstream media coverage. The exceptions were notable – like a Chicago NBC station broadcasting the livestream from Tim Pool during NATO protests or the collaborative May Day coverage coordinated by the Media Consortium.
From Citizen Journalism to Collaborative Journalism With Citizens
In Ferguson however, it feels like there has been a shift in the rhetoric around citizens’ role in covering the protests. In the New York Times, David Carr described how Ferguson became #Ferguson, arguing that “in a situation hostile to traditional reporting, the crowdsourced, phone-enabled network of information that Twitter provides has proved invaluable.” Writing a day after a three journalists were arrested the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote, “last night’s Ferguson ‘coverage’ began when people started retweeting pictures of armored vehicles with heavily armored ‘robocops’ on top of them, aiming their muzzle at the protesters.”
Indeed, since the Occupy protests we’ve seen more and more media relying on alternative sources of news from Syria to Egypt. Writing in the New York Times last year Celestine Bohlen described the increasingly symbiotic relationship between non-governmental organizations and media outlets. She quotes french journalist Alfred de Montesquiou, who says “The NGOs are doing more and more of the investigative work that journalists don’t do — either because the media they work for is understaffed, underfunded or uninterested.” That sentiment was echoed by GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram last week. Drawing parallels between Egypt, Ukraine and Ferguson, Ingram wrote “citizen-powered journalism filled the gap left by traditional media, which were either incapable or unwilling to cover the news.”
Of course, what connects these various conflicts is not simply that citizens are using social media, but that people who have historically been excluded from media are making their stories heard. And in the United States and around the globe, citizens taking up the tools of media making are running into troubling legal and safety risks.
Long-time media justice organizer Malkia Cyril argued this week that “Black bloggers, photojournalists, digital organizers, and citizen journalists are a new generation of civil rights leaders.” Participatory journalism is increasingly part of participatory democracy. The founders understood this fact, which is why the news gathering protections of the First Amendment are not limited to those employed by a newsroom, but extend to all people. It’s troubling then, as journalism professor Jeremy Littau points out, to see many press freedom advocates defend the rights of professional journalists without also standing up for citizen reporters who also face ongoing harassment, injury and arrest on the streets of Ferguson.
Local Newsrooms As Labs for Participatory Journalism
There is a huge opportunity local journalism to help build more digital and media literacy as more and more people participate the news. Media scholar Dan Gillmor has written that today “none of us is fully literate unless we are creating, not just consuming.” My experience has been that, whether they are live streaming at a protest or just sharing news on Facebook, many people are curious about how to leverage the tools at their fingertips and hungry for guidance on how to be more trustworthy, safe, and ethical media participants.
While there is an array of online tools and trainings for citizen journalists – from online MOOC’s like Cardif University’s Community Journalism course to the great guides produced by groups like Global Voices and WITNESS (and even the terrific journalism merit badge at DIY) – I see an important role for local newsrooms to more deeply engage their communities as partners in co-creating the news.
For a long time, many newspaper companies sponsored high-school journalism programs – perhaps it is time to expand that idea to a broader public. Such a program would not only help equip people with new skills, but also help make the work of journalism more transparent, and (done right) build affinity and trust.
When I’m on the road talking with people about local journalism I’m still constantly asked about where people can find more curriculum, trainings and resources. Books like Mediactive and the Verification Handbook are crucial resources but they need to be paired with trainings and on-going support.
Building More Engaged and Informed Communities Together
One of the projects I’m most excited about is the Citizens Campaign in New Jersey. The Citizen’s Campaign seeks to “cultivate a culture of service and develop a new generation of leaders” in three areas they call “paths to power:” Citizen Innovator, Citizen Legislator, and Citizen Journalist. They have created a “Citizen Journalist Toolbox” which uses interactive web lessons and videos to teach “the principles of ethical journalism, investigative reporting, how to get published online or start your own website.” This fall they are launching a City Storytellers Boot Camp and asking participants to make a one year commitment to telling the story of their community.
The Citizens Campaign is also part of the New Jersey News Commons at the Montclair State University, so it is networked together with newsrooms and journalists across the state. At the same time, municipalities across New Jersey are exploring how the news and information needs of their communities intersect with building more sustainable towns and cities. Sustainable Jersey will be giving local governments more tools – from open data to live streaming public meetings – that can support both professional journalists and community members who want to report on local issues.*
The city of Ferguson and the various law enforcement agencies who have been involved in the response to Michael Brown’s shooting and the subsequent protests have been roundly criticized for their lack of transparency and their aggressive, violent response to local citizens (especially those trying to document and bear witness). “No one knows if more police transparency would have prevented the violence and arrests,” writes former News and Record editor John Robinson. However, he continues, “Information is power. When I have it and won’t give it to you, it signals that I don’t trust you to know what to do with it. In turn, it erodes your trust in me.”
Local newsrooms also have information, skills and resources they can share too. They could be laboratories for participatory journalism. Journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued, “The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.” We need that strength now more than ever. Budgets are tight and launching a training program may not be in the cards, but as newsrooms rely more and more on citizens for on the ground reports it is in our best interest to share what we can, to teach and learn from each other and support the community as collaborators.
Update 1: Within hours of publishing this post Beacon Reader and the Huffington Post announced a partnership to launch a “Ferguson Fellowship.” According to a blog post by Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post wrote that, with support from readers, they will “hire a local citizen journalist who’s been covering the turmoil and train her to become a professional journalist.” Mariah Stewart of Ferguson will work closely with Huffington Post’s criminal justice reporter Ryan Reilly to keep covering race and justice issues after other national media move on. I am a fan of Beacon’s crowdfunded model, but I would love to see Huffington Post match some of the community funding. This will be an interesting model to watch and seems highly replicable in local newsrooms.)
Update 2: Two more relevant links: Read about how how St. Louis Public Radio uses community voices to steer their Ferguson coverage and OnTheMedia also discusses the emerging role of citizen media in Ferguson and how it compares with past protests in the United States and around the globe.
*Disclosure: The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation funds the Citizens Campaign, NJ News Commons and Sustainable Jersey.