Citizen Journalism: Weapon of 'Mass' Destruction?

The second day of ICE07 opened with a panel of Michael Tippet, Founder of NowPublic, Paul Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of, Mark Evans, VP Operations of b5media and Angus Frame, Editor of discussing citizen journalism.
Angus FrameAccording to Angus Frame, expects to receive 100,000 comments in March from readers. Frame feels that this greatly enhances the online paper’s relationship with its readers and adds an additional dimension to its coverage of news.

Paul SullivanPaul Sullivan talked about dealing with the “wing nuts.” Orato exercises some editorial control by pushing better stories and contributions to the front page. Other stories “that only their mother could love” languish in a back corner.
Michael TippetMichael Tippet indicated that NowPublic does not edit material. It counts on the community to police itself. He has found that members keep each other moderate through comments. NowPublic’s group of 30 to 40 volunteer editors attempt to demonstrate leadership in this area by flagging both good content and bad content.

Mark EvansMark Evans argued that very few people are citizen journalists. Most people would be better called “citizen observers.” They write about events but they don’t practise journalism. Michael Tippet agreed with Evans, noting that NowPublic sees itself as a news gathering site, not a citizen journalism site.

Paul Sullivan says that he thinks of people as “citizen correspondents.” We’re giving people who would otherwise be voiceless access to the public discussion. “The whole idea of citizen journalism is dangerous in the same way that citizen dentistry would be dangerous.” There is a place for amateur journalism. These voices add something unique and something new.

Angus Frame said that the conversation is really one about what the pool of the masses have to contribute and how they can participate in debate. It’s a new world in how many people can participate and the instantaneous fashion in which they can do it.

And what of concerns about libel laws? Mark Evans indicated that insurance is a necessary element of b5media’s business. Michael Tippet takes the view that NowPublic is not a publisher, but is more like a telephone common carrier. They simply provide the channel for the content. Angus Frame indicated that the uses a mediated moderation process. Comments go directly to the site. However, readers can flag content they find problematic and editorial staff will then review the comment in question.

Paul Sullivan suggests that he has tried to keep people focused on writing stories more than comments. From the outset, Orato has encouraged people to communicate first person stories. That enables people to talk about things they know best. And in return, they are given final control over their content.

And what of violent and questionable content like the Saddam Hussein beheading video? Angus Frame suggested that would treat this the same as its current text contributions, relying on its community and staff editors to make the call about the suitability of the content for the site. Michael Tippet argued that as questionable as some content is, it is important to get the information out. Paul Sullivan added that it is a matter of taste. The content is already available on numerous sites. So removing it from an online news site will note eliminate access to it.

Paul Sullivan added that the content on Orato comes “from a different place” than the content generated by professional news organizations. It reflects the interests and the background of the contributors in a way that professional journalism tries not to. It also comes from places that have fallen out of the catchment patterns of traditional news organizations. Remote places and places in which front page news is not being generated.

Angus Frame acknowledged that the new engagement of readers in conversation with the news outlet has led to much more feedback on the quality and content of the coverage generated by the news organization. This is humbling. But it also makes the news organization better as it receives and incorporates this feedback.

Back to the question of whether it is citizen ‘journalism.’ Michael Tippet says whether ‘it’ is journalism is not important. What is important is that people want to do ‘it’. They are writing. They are videotaping. And they are uploading new content. What is important is that it’s happening – whatever it is called. Angus Frame asked, if it’s of value and used by the audience, why does it matter what it is called? If we can achieve a discourse between citizens, then that is what is important. Webster’s dictionary can decide what to call it.