Hand holding up mobile phone to take picture of crowd (© Shutterstock)
(© Shutterstock)

If you use social media to tell what’s going on in your community or to shed light on events around you, you’re doing the work of a citizen journalist.

That is “somebody doing acts of journalism without being a trained journalist,” according to Mark Glaser, founder of MediaShift, a site that follows news trends in the digital age. Glaser says citizen journalists can include those who intend to report what they observe to a wide audience and those who happen to be on the scene when news occurs and share information to social media.

Two silhouetted people (© Shutterstock)
(© Shutterstock)

Although the idea of nonprofessional journalists making their voices heard has existed for centuries, citizen journalism got a big boost from the internet.

Valerie Belair-Gagnon, a media sociologist, says the internet replaced the structure of traditional news organizations with something much less centralized.

Groups like the Global Press Institute have trained women in areas around the globe that are under-represented in world media to tell stories important to their communities in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the International Center for Journalists trained citizens to write about issues related to health, environment and local infrastructure.

Beyond the internet, another tidal shift in journalism came with the rise of social media, said Glaser. “With smartphones,” he said, “people have the means to capture what’s going on around them very easily and post it to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etcetera. It’s created an amazing number of potential citizen journalists.”

This social-media-boosted citizen journalism changed the way the world understood important events such as the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and the Arab Spring.

“The advantage of citizen journalists is that they’re everywhere.”

~ Mark Glaser, founder of MediaShift

Glaser said the work of citizen journalists offers perspectives missed in mainstream media.

The disadvantages? “There’s always going to be a question around credibility when you’re getting material from citizen journalists,” Glaser said. A bystander with a mobile phone might not know what to capture or what questions to ask in the way a trained journalist would. “What usually works best, when it comes to material from citizen journalists, is when it’s picked up by a professional news organization that can then verify it and give it context.”

During the Arab Spring protests, established news organizations made extensive use of reports from protesters and bystanders on the streets posted to Twitter and WhatsApp. “In these cases,” said Belair-Gagnon, “citizen media helped news organization source stories, and helped movements to take ownership of their stories.”

More recently, citizen journalists on social media have provided news when traditional media outlets have been constrained by government control, as in Venezuela, where protests against President Nicolás Maduro weren’t reported on television, but were covered extensively on social media.