guest blogger Richard Sambrook: citizen journalism

By on Mar 20, 2006 in BBC, citizen journalism | 10 comments

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The following guest entry was written by Richard Sambrook, Director of Global News at the BBC. Richard started his career working on local newspapers and joined the BBC in the 1980’s as a radio news sub-editor. He worked his way up the ranks to become deputy director, and later director, of BBC News – a role which made him responsible for over 2000 journalists in 57 locations around the World. Richard spends much of his time investigating how journalism is evolving and sharing his thoughts on these developments with colleagues at the BBC and throughout the industry. [you can now listen to this post]

What a difference a year makes. 2005 was the year the idea of citizen journalism entered the public consciousness – and moved on. It started as a largely academic debate, was thrown into the spotlight by the combination of global crises and technology and ended the year being integrated into the way most major news organisations now routinely work. It says a lot for the current speed of change that an idea as big as citizen journalism – with all its implications for the way public information is mediated, the democratisation of information and the dilemmas and doubts it raises – can arrive and be essentially resolved in 12 short months.  Of course for those following the development of blogging it had been a core issue of debate for a long time – in particular the relationship between bloggers and journalists. Are they the same thing? Are they in competition? Would one see the demise of the other?  But by January last year Jay Rosen, New York University professor and blogger at PressThink attended a Harvard symposium and declared the war was over, and that clear and different roles had been established.

Then the big disasters of 2005, from the Tsunami , to the London bombings, to Hurricane Katrina, the Asian earthquake and the Buncefield Oil explosion in the UK provided platforms for the public to contribute to newsgathering on an unprecedented scale.

The rest of the world woke up to the idea of citizen journalism. There were countless conferences, panel discussions, and column inches discussing whether this was journalism or not, would it mean the end of News as we know it, should the media pay the public for their contributions, what were the ethical and editorial policy dilemmas and so endlessly on. Neil McIntosh of The Guardian, in the wake of the 7/7 bombings usefully tried to define some terms on his blog, suggesting we stop referring to user content as journalism and talk about "citizen storytelling" instead. Others suggested "citizen media" would be a better label.  Underlying this was a continuing drumbeat of concern about the value of news and journalism – indeed what is journalism in a fully digital world where information is a commodity?

Around this time I had an – as ever – very entertaining and illuminating beer with David Weinberger in London. He talked about the crisis in US journalism with failing trust in the big news organisations. He pointed out that Google now provided a news service with just an algorithm where there used to be a newsroom of dozens of people – and suggested algorithms were probably more reliable than journalists anyway! So if information is commodotised, and the public can tell their own stories, what’s the role for the journalist? I came up with three things – verification (testing rumour and clearing fog), explanation (context and background) and analysis (a Google search won’t provide judgement). And journalists still have the resources to go places and uncover things that might otherwise remain hidden. Citizens can  do all of those things, but not consistently, and with even less accountability than the media.  Brand still matters.   

And as the debate about user content ran on I came to the conclusion that, at it’s heart it was very simple. There are four kinds of activity which all get called citizen journalism but which are very different.

  1. The use of eyewitness accounts, pictures and video. News organisations have always done this. We interview eyewitnesses – now they seek us out. We use the publics pictures. Now they email them to us in their thousands. We’ve always had to verify their authenticity. Quantity is the only thing that technology has changed here.
  2. The integration of user comment or blogs into news coverage. For decades the radio phone-in has been a tried and trusted format. Today the integration of public opinion in blogs is a new form of the same thing. As long as the user is clear about the source (in the BBC’s case what comes from a blog v what comes from a BBC reporter) there is no editorial dilemma beyond the usual ones of taste and balance.
  3. News broken on the web.  This is real citizen journalism – where a blog or website breaks real news. Sometimes it is the pursuit of an issue which has been left hanging (hence to downfall of Trent Lott, Dan Rather and Eason Jordan) or sometimes genuine investigation – as with Mark Krafts scoop on the use of white phosphorous in Iraq. Either way it is news – reportable by all of us – although again verification is necessary.
  4. Using the public to develop and inform our journalism. Finally the most interesting and least developed area. When Dan Gillmor had his IT column in Silicon Valley he came to the uncomfortable realisation that his readership knew far more about the subject than he did. But he then had the insight to realise he could use them to make his column the best informed in the world – and one appropriate for the heart of the digital revolution. The same is true for every subject. Someone, somewhere will know more about it than we journalists do. So how can we find them and use their expertise to better inform our journalism? Perhaps we should start "Open Source" reporting as a regular news specialism – a correspondent who announces the issue he wants to explore and invites the audience to help steer the coverage. In the pan of dust and opinion will, I’m sure be some gold nuggets of real expertise and knowledge. The point is, this kind of citizen journalism can only improve and enrich what news organisations do.  Perhaps it will be the theme of 2006.

So I have four categories. The Poynter Institute has eleven. However, it seems that the debate is settling and citizen journalism, integrating content from the public, is now becoming a routine reflex for news organisations in a way that wasn’t the case a year ago. Last month I was in Mumbai India where there are 30 news channels competing for eyeballs. The local CNN-IBN channel is in no doubt about how it wants to appeal to the public.


Where next? Videoblogging is going to take off rapidly I think. And no-one has yet got the perfect model for integrating user content fully with daily conventional news coverage – but many people are working hard to find it.  Check these:

And citizen participation is going to spread out beyond the media into areas like health and education and of course politics – which is why more and more politicians are starting blogs to speak directly to the public – from  Mohammed Abtahi, Iran’s former vice President, to Barack Obama, US senator for Illinois and the latest candidate for "first black president", to, I gather, David Miliband who will be the UK’s first cabinet minister to blog. Citizen journalism? Hardly, but important voices in the global conversation which now surrounds us all.

That debate is only just beginning.