Citizen journalism for empowerment: Moving in from the margins?
Start date: 12 November 2014
Citizen journalism often emerges through groups of innovative citizens who want to have their voice heard, connect with their communities, fill the gaps left by failing local news providers, and avail the public’s dissatisfaction with legacy media (see Metzgar, Kurpius & Rowley, 2011). Countless citizen journalism projects have emerged in across Europe in recent years, from hyperlocal newspapers to celebrity gossip websites, to first-person commentaries from the front line. Citizen journalism offers (in theory), an inherently empowering narrative, which can give voice to the voiceless in society. In this paper, we explore this concept by documenting an ongoing collaborative citizen journalism project between Bournemouth University (UK) and Access Dorset: a charity serving over 5000 disabled people and older people; and representing traditionally marginalised groups. As with other minorities, research has shown that historically there has been a mainstream under-representation of disability, use of stereotypes and a failure to challenge society’s prejudices. And despite some encouraging progress this still persists.
Of course, the problem for many disabled people is access and voice in the media – being able to offer counter narratives to those in the mainstream, and cover the issues that matter to people like them. This is why such innovations as the one we document hold much promise. Based on a survey with all of Access Dorset’s users (5000+), plus interviews and observation with twelve members of Access Dorset – who had no prior experience of journalism but were trained by us over eight weeks – we explore the potential and actual power of citizens to put forward their voice and shape their own agenda through citizen journalism. The paper explores how participants defined their genre of journalism; the nature of journalism practices and editorial structures that emerged; and participants’ chosen subject matters and how this relates to their marginalisation in mainstream coverage. Interviews revealed some of the tensions evident in previous citizen journalism projects; for example their relationship with local and national media – who they have great difficulty in influencing; and the contradictory and ambivalent ways in which they define their work as ‘journalism’, and themselves as ‘journalists’.
Other emerging tensions were more cognisant of the group we were working with and speak directly to the contradictory nature of citizen empowerment. For instance, of all the barriers to having their voice heard we explored with interviewees, physical and mental disability were virtually absent; but the fear of publically criticising the government was a genuine barrier for many, who felt vulnerable in the face of the government ‘assault’ on welfare and benefits. Furthermore, there was not a straightforward relationship between becoming confident as a citizen journalist, and feeling empowered as a disabled or older person. Nevertheless, our survey of the ‘audience’ of the journalism project showed the potentially transformative impact citizen journalism can have on a ‘community’ such as disabled and older people, who expressed genuine anger at their historic media marginalisation, and felt empowered by seeing people such as them produce journalism.