Although some people think it is wrong to use the term "citizen journalism," such phenomenon is reshaping the relationship between media and their audiences, while unleashing overwhelming changes within the communications industry. Technological tools available empower more people to disseminate information on the Internet, thus changing drastically the traditional paradigms of journalism. Now, the sixth power lies in people
Journalism has changed, or it is rather undergoing a rapid transformation ever since technology put in people's hands a vast array of tools to disseminate and obtain information, without relying on large news media.
The paradigm of communication, in which a vertical model of communication (sender - message - audience) gave all power to the media, changed to a more horizontal model. Thus, the current communication dynamics involves terms such as bidirectionality, interaction and feedback.
However, Spanish journalist Oscar Espiritusanto, the founder of Periodismociudadano.com, believes that there is no rivalry between the so-called citizen journalists and conventional journalists. "Using a term of renowned Spanish chef Ferrán Adriá, I think we should 'deconstruct' the profession of journalism, and begin to determine what roles the social media should play and how to establish a genuine dialogue with the audience."
Actually, not only the communication dynamics has changed, but also the outcome. We have passed from a shortage of information and dependence on large news agencies to the present flood of news. "Such overflow forces journalists to play the role of filters," explains Espiritusanto, adding that the traditional ranking of news is not watertight. "We know from statistics that many people do not enter through the cover but through the back door. And today, journalists' ranking of news is ignored by people, as one can see on websites such as www.meneame.net, where users rank information based on their own criteria. Thus, the smart mob decides what is important."
However, although it may appear that journalists are losing ground to citizens, Espiritusanto thinks journalism is going through its best moment ever. "These are times to gather information, put it in context and create ways of communicating with people."
It is not journalism
Luis Carlos Díaz, a journalist, coordinator of social networks at Centro Gumilla and a blogger, does not believe that citizen journalism as we know it is actual journalism. Fernando Nuñez Noda, director of Infociudadano.com, agrees. Indeed, citizens do not use journalistic techniques to produce their stories -they do not check information, mix information with opinion or miss some data.
"Already in the 1990's, a debate emerged that journalists should focus again on citizens' needs. Now, the process of adopting new technologies paves the way for people to post and produce contents on the Internet," said Díaz. He claims that such a phenomenon is taking place massively throughout the world and calls it "info-citizenship" -which is the ability to inform and be informed, and consume free and abundant information. "This situation allows people to assemble, get themselves organized and act. However, while interesting, this is not journalism. People give inputs which journalists can arrange into an article."
The end of the scoop
Changes in the profession of journalism are apparent. "Scoops no longer exist. Immediacy is in people's hands. A journalist's role is to bring order into this confusion," says Díaz. Meanwhile, Nuñez Noda explains that citizens react especially to major news events. "Under such circumstances, their contributions are extremely useful, as they are everywhere," Nuñez Noda said.
Experts agree that the challenge is how to engage the audiences -now autonomous and aware of their power- in a way that both media and users may cash in on good-quality information.
According to Espiritusanto, people should be given as much freedom as possible to post the contents they want, uncensored. CNN does this on its website, in a way similar to YouTube. Díaz says that many media kill citizens' spontaneity by grabbing the contents people send. "The advent of tools like Twitter allows people to have a voice and build their own reputation." However, the principle of confirming the news before publication still prevails.
In Venezuela, citizen journalism is not as strong, and Díaz reasons that the political situation facing the country has removed community issues from the spotlight. "Everything that affects us Venezuelans is marked by the centers of power. No matter if you are in Charallave town or Petare neighborhood, people end up being part of the debate around the country's polarization, and community issues become less important."
Translated by Maryflor Suárez
Cristian Fonseca, a businessman in La Candelaria district downtown Caracas, was doing the accounts in his small shop office on Sunday December 21, 2008. The Christmas shopping season kept him working late hours into the night. It was around 11 p.m. and his phone rang. A friend broke the bad news to him over the telephone.