With Kashmiris forcing us to take note of them on Facebook and Twitter, with the internet noise on the Radia tapes making a mockery of the media’s radio silence over them, with WikiLeaks assuring us that we’re well into the age of information anarchy, the old, dogged question rears afresh its banal head: are citizen journalists, journalists?
I was at a Google conference in Budapest in September, called ‘Internet at Liberty 2010’, which had bloggers, activists and policywallahs from 70 nations. At one of the theme dinners, we were asked how many of us identified ourselves as citizen journalists. No hand went up, even as we were all conscious that any one of us could be the first one to see a plane crashing and be the first to report it on Twitter.
A lot of us felt strongly against the term. Not only is it a term used by big media to co-opt the rise of the media consumer’s voice, but it’s also limiting in scope. It explains away the phenomenon of the rise of mass communication that is not top-down.
The problem is not merely a semantic one. Participants of the ‘debate’ on citizen journalism are often heard complaining, “Anyone can say anything!” You would think journalists would be the first to defend free speech, considering how they cry blue murder when the State suggests regulation. “Where are the editorial checks and balances in citizen journalism?” they ask. Where did your checks and balances disappear while speaking to a Niira Radia, while letting advertisers invert the news pyramid, while letting nationalism come in the way of telling us the truth about Kashmir?
The ‘problems’ with ‘citizen journalism’, then, are a red herring to deflect attention from the role that citizens are playing as media watchdogs. Blogging became a fad in India in 2004, and if bloggers developed a reputation as people who were out to bring down big media, it was because ordinary people felt discontented with the media. Now they had a platform to express their angst. I have by now lost count of the number of instances of plagiarism in the Indian media that bloggers have exposed, for instance. If every citizen seemed to be ranting against the media on the Net, this was matched by the shrinking space of the letters column in the papers, and the absence of any occasion where news channels apologise for their mistakes. ‘Mainstream media’ was ranted against so regularly it had to be referred in shorthand as MSM.
There were many media blogs, often anonymously leaking gossip and internal emails of media organisations. Celebrity anchors and editors wondered aloud why blogs were so full of hate. Truth was, most of these were run by journalists themselves. No one asked why journalists were so full of hate. The medium became the message. Witch-hunts were launched, blogs were blocked in media offices, and everyone in office was under suspicion.
This is when big media started using the term ‘citizen journalism’ to co-opt this phenomenon. MSM websites started having ‘blog sections’ that were hardly blogs, betraying their shallow understanding of the medium. Newspapers went further to parade their editorial intelligence by marking out columns in print as ‘blogs’.
By 2008 blogging was dead. Facebook was the new star. Old world journalists who looked down on you if you were on Facebook, all joined it sooner or later. Just-out-of-college TV journalists shamelessly promote their own Facebook fan pages, and then big media sits in judgement on the vanity of social media.
The invasion of social media by MSM editors became serious business after 26/11, when the Facebook janata punched the media in their face. This isn’t about one particular journalist, because they all realised they can’t ignore this noise on the internet. They may think of the aam aadmi online as an idiot. But the more idiotic they are the more they are likely to be our ‘TG’ (Target Group). The barrage of personal hate online was now taken in its stride as part of a dialogue.
The relationship between MSM and citizens online had matured. When Time magazine informed our editors that every big name in American public life was on Twitter, they had to follow, if only to report as breaking news what Shashi Tharoor tweeted. 2009 was the year of Twitter. People love to see public figures accessible on Twitter, but making yourself accessible on social media has also backfired for some, bringing more than usual wrath when you’re down and out just because you are present there to be pilloried.
Citizens may not have become journalists, but citizens have brought journalists down from their pedestals and reminded them that they, too, are ordinary citizens. Champions of democracy, rejoice.
Shivam Vij is a Delhi-based independent journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.