Matthew Rae is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.
The idea of a ‘citizen’ emerged with the French revolution in 1789. Since then, here have been many rights, roles, and responsibilities attributed to the citizen. No role, however, is as unique as the citizen’s role in the field of journalism. Citizen journalism, or public journalism, has existed in some form since the eighteenth century but has recently taken on a new function.[i] The advent of the internet and social media has provided the citizen with the necessary tools to steer and shape states’ domestic and foreign policies to a greater extent than ever could before.
Citizen journalism is a form of participatory journalism; it is the act of a citizen or group of citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information. While this type of journalism focuses more on providing news from various sources, mediums and locations, civic journalism is conducted by professional associations and attempts to shape public debate. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism argues that it “is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life—an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts.”
While citizen journalism was not the central focus of a particular panel discussion at the April 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy, it was a continuing topic of conversation. The first panel on “Asymmetries and Strategic Communication: New Mechanisms, New Players, New Strategies,” for example, looked at how state and non-state actors are exploring new strategic communication techniques in an attempt to influence domestic and international media.
This blog post considers how citizenship journalism is changing the domestic and foreign policy landscape in three main ways. First, the number of participants has increased drastically, as demonstrated by the uprisings in Egypt. Second, these citizen journalists are able to bring local instances of state brutality to the forefront of foreign policy discussions, with the assistance of traditional news media. The example this blog post provides is the 2009 Iranian rebellion. Third, as the Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated, many competing parties can use this form of journalism to advance their political objectives.
The Current State of Citizen Journalism
Contemporary citizen journalism has emerged as the result of both technological and methodological innovations. These types of journalists do not view professional (or traditional) journalists as illegitimate, but they may be discontent with the way information is disseminated by these professionals.[ii] They believe that current journalistic technique is lacking, that there are no longer enough professional journalists, and that the information contained in newspapers is too thin for local communities.
Both citizen and professional journalists have begun to employ more modern communication mediums however traditional goals of disseminating information remain a key focus.[iii] The inability of citizen journalists to, to a large extent, move beyond traditional goals of information dissemination is one criticism of this form of journalism. Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen argue that by focusing on traditional goals, citizen journalism passes up an opportunity to engage in media criticism. They argue that “citizen journalism operates to critique professional journalism.”[iv]
Another critique of citizen journalists is that they have been unable to imagine journalism outside the purposes and conventions of mainstream news, despite being viewed as revolutionary from some perspectives.[v] Other criticisms are much harsher.
One harsh critique is that citizenship journalism is plagued with problems of fakery, manipulation, partisanship, bias, and lack of accountability. The lack of accountability and verification seem to be fair criticism of this form of journalism as there are multiple examples of doctored videos and reports. For example, Channel 4 in the UK unknowingly used at least one altered video from the Syrian city of Homs in 2012, which was taken by a local resident.
Increasingly, however, citizen journalists are encouraging two-way interactivity and processes of verification, in which producers and consumers of news mutually influence one another.[vi] Citizen journalists use this this two-way interactivity with one another and state authorities to change foreign policy.
During the uprisings in the Arab Spring, for example, Andy Carvin of National Public Radio relied heavily upon Twitter. According to Carvin, “his followers act simultaneously as sources, fact-checkers, editors and distributors.” Carvin essentially figured out a way to crowdsource the various responsibilities of journalists. As the following case studies will demonstrate, the involvement of so many people in the process can be a strength and a weakness of citizenship journalism.
One of the greatest strengths of citizenship journalism is its ability to challenge authoritarian regimes. Bloggers and other forms of citizen journalism are challenging autocratic regimes in ways traditional journalists cannot. Citizen journalists have become the main proponents of free speech in many repressive countries around the world.
Widespread protests emerged in 2009 in Iran as a result of what was viewed as a fraudulent presidential election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. The Iranian regime responded by closing the country off from the digital world. In response, citizens set up proxy servers to distribute videos and images to the international press, with some key players banding together on Twitter. This interactivity allowed citizens to counter the regime’s repression of traditional journalist outlets and led to the development of new organizations. Access, for example, was an online platform that allowed citizen journalists to share videos shot on cell phones and other devices.
The question many critics ask is, “So what?” Are there any measurable changes as a direct result of these citizen journalist initiatives? It may not seem that way in Iran because the Islamic Republic did not disappear, however the use of social media by citizen journalists did bring the violence in the streets of Tehran to the forefront of the geopolitical conversation. A YouTube video showing the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, for example, eventually led President Obama to state “Iran must stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”[vii] It was because of citizen journalism that a U.S. President was required to make a statement and address a foreign policy issue.
Citizen journalist reports often provided the international community with eyes and ears on the ground and videos that highlighted the atrocities occurring in Iran. The constant feeding of information to international news agencies indirectly kept the international diplomatic pressure on Iran to halt its repressive activities.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution provides another key example of the role of citizenship journalism. This type of journalism was not unfamiliar territory for Egypt: since the early 2000s, bloggers and activists had been chronicling complaints and demonstrating against the regime. In April 2008, for example, citizens attempted to organize strikes at a factory through social media and SMS. The strikes were only a partial success, but they did convince young Egyptian activists that new media technologies could play a powerful role in disseminating their message and in organizing for action.[viii] These citizen journalists and civil activists continued to use the internet and cell phones to mobilize various sections of society.
In 2011, citizen journalists in Cairo documented police brutality and crackdowns on dissent. Through the simple act of chronicling dissent itself, they paved the way for traditional media, who were apprehensive about reporting occurrences of dissidence for fear of retaliation from the regime. Hossam El Hamalway, an Egyptian blogger and activist said that “rather than report the abuse directly, and put themselves at the risk of arrest or government intimidation, newspaper journalists would cite bloggers who posted the videos, thus absolving themselves of direct responsibility for the story.” This avoidance of responsibility allowed traditional journalists to report on events that contradicted government propaganda. The citizen journalist was also able to project his or her story or video to a wider audience. The Egyptian revolution is a prime example of the potential power of mobilization associated with citizen journalists, and their interaction with traditional forms of journalism.
The events in Ukraine since 2014 have shaken the international system to its core; but the Euromaidan protests and the associated citizen journalism is only one aspect of the crisis. Increasingly, voluntary fighters in Donetsk have been conducting citizen journalism. David Mdzinarishvili, writing for Reuters on journalism in Ukraine argued “citizen journalism and independent media initiatives that sprouted from EuroMaidan created a cultural expectation for immediacy and honesty in reporting that currently remains unsupported by many mainstream and state-funded programs.” Many Ukrainian military volunteers have taken on the additional role of citizen journalist, reporting on the ongoing conflict, largely through social media. An increase in the number of citizen journalists in Ukraine has led to an increasing appetite among audiences for this type of journalism.
At the same time, certain interest groups within society have manipulated and co-opted citizen journalist reports. Important questions have to be asked when reading pieces by citizen journalists. To whom is the citizen journalist accountable? Did he or she behave responsibly in reporting the story? If these questions are not asked, it leads to situations similar to when Channel 4 aired a doctored video, an example mentioned earlier in this post.
Reports by citizen journalists have been used extensively in Ukraine to push a certain narrative. When members of Svoboda, an extreme right-wing group, assaulted the boss of Ukrainian state TV broadcaster National Television Company and forced to him to resign, concerns about neo-Nazism emerged. A video of the incident, which couldn’t be verified, was uploaded to the popular UStream channel. Western media sources had to rely on this one piece of evidence, which greatly skewed their ability to verify the story.
Pro-Russian news outlets increasingly claim that pro-Ukrainian citizen journalists use unverified videos to push a particular story. For example, Russia Insider denied the authenticity of a video, released by citizen journalism site Interpreter, claiming to show Russian tanks in Eastern Ukraine. This type of journalism has become a key source of information for all parties involved in the conflict. The OSCE, for instance, increasingly supplements traditional reports with ones complied by citizen journalists on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. It is imperative that traditional news agencies research and report the whole picture when it comes to citizen journalist reports or else international organizations and governments risk making costly foreign policy mistakes.
Citizen journalism is not a new concept. It has existed in some form since the French Revolution. However, with the advent of the internet and social media, anyone with a camera on their mobile phone can act as a journalist. As illustrated in all three cases presented, citizen journalism has been and continues to be a key component in shaping domestic and foreign policy decisions. Admittedly, citizen journalism has not always been beneficial. Both sides of the conflict—as was particularly the case in the Crimean conflict—can use citizen journalism to manipulate the responses of the international community. Regardless of these shortcomings, there is room for both traditional and citizen journalists to play an important role in 21st century foreign policy.
 Attempts to organize protests began before the Tahrir Square demonstrations.
[i] David M. Ryfe and Donica Mensing, “Citizen Journalism in a Historical Frame,” in Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen Engaged Press, ed. Jack Rosenberry and Burton St John (New York: Routledge, 2010), 34.
[ii] Ibid., 36.
[iii] Ibid., 33.
[iv] Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen, Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives (New York: Peter Lang Publishing,
[v] Ryfe and Mensing, “Citizen Journalism in a Historical Frame,” 38.
[vi] Ibid., 37.
[vii] Sadaf R Ali and Shahira Fahmy, “Gatekeeping and citizen journalism: the use of social media during the recent uprisings in Iran, Egypt, and Libya,” Media, War & Conflict 6 no. 1, 60.
[viii] Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, counter-revolution and the making of a new era (London: Yale University Press, 2013), 53.
About the Author
Matthew Rae is originally from a small town outside of Toronto, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hon) in Political Science and International Development from the University of Guelph. He has recently finished his Masters at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. His Masters’ thesis focused on the Arab Spring and the 1848 Revolutions in Europe. It is entitled, Social Classes, Goals and Instruments: An 1848 paradigm of revolutionary success and failure. Matthew has worked both within public and private sectors, such as the Embassy of the Republic of Malta in Vienna and Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. His main interests include international economics and trade, conflict resolution, and social rebellion. Matthew is currently the editor of the International Economics section of Polemics, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna’s student journal. He has also published a paper entitled The Ukrainian Crisis: An Examination of Russia’s Foreign Policy Through Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.