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Citizen Journalism Defended Despite a Tough Challenge in a Berlin International Conference

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The challenge wasn't easy. Werner D'Inka, a member of the editorial board of one of Germany's most prestigious newspapers, Frankfurt's Allgemeine Zeitung, emphatically proclaimed, "We don't deal with citizen journalism and we see no reason why we should."

The statement followed two key note addresses in favor of citizen journalism by Solan Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices, and Stephen Lang, editor of Grocotto's Mail in Grahamstown, a trend-setting citizen journalist media outlet in South Africa. The venue was a conference in Berlin hosted by the International Media Institute and entitled, "At a Tipping Point: Community Voices Create a Difference."

Two hours later -- and after some passionate give and take with fellow panelists and over 200 guests that included German development civil servants, NGO representatives, journalists, media students and trainees -- the German editor agreed to look into using certain elements of citizen journalism in his prestigious and respected daily.

Solan opened the daylong Berlin event by chronicling success story after success story -- women bloggers in Yemen; Madagascar youth trying to present an alternative narrative to the Disney animation feature; environmental posts from Mongolian nomadic communities; and posts from Colombia, Liberia, and around the world.

The posts cited by Solan were among the many chosen by volunteers and part-time editors who scan the blogosphere in their regions and choose news and trends to include in the daily newsletter, Global Voices. Blogs are posted in fifteen languages, with key selections translated into five languages. The Global Voices manager also spoke about Ghana's online information portal, which is monitoring elections in 10 countries, and mentioned the efforts of Israeli bloggers who converted Tel Aviv's hard to read budget, initially released as a PDF file, into a highly readable Excel spreadsheet, allowing ordinary citizens to read and comment on its particular line items.

South Africa's Stephen Lang detailed cases where SMS tips from readers were posted on the website and followed up on by regular journalists for the print edition. Training high school students also resulted in a bonanza of compelling stories. In one stirring example, a student exposed how abhorrent governmental neglect led to a school's total lack of water and to teachers leaving classrooms at will to go for a smoke or a drink.

Jordan's AmmanNet project was also featured for its experimentation with using technology and proximity to bypass restrictive regulations. The goal of this experiment is to provide listeners and surfers with reports usually shunned by traditional media whose owners are too close to governments and whose journalists regularly practice self-censorship. Ritu Kapur of India outlined a story written by the winner of a citizen media award shown on CNN-IBN. The piece featured a father trying to track down the truck driver who had run over his son. Along the way, he also discovered that trucks regularly carried loads that exceeded their vehicle's capacity, a practice that leaves drivers unable to control their trucks and results in countless tragedies.

After seeing how citizen journalism could work in developing, often repressed countries, the senior German editor adjusted his stance somewhat. However, he remained skeptical about its use in open societies such as Germany. He asked a question which sparked a flurry of debate: Would I want to sit in a building built by a citizen engineer or fly in a plane piloted by a citizen pilot? The German editor noted the large amounts of rubbish on the internet, characterizing most citizen journalism as as nothing more than advocacy content or PR propaganda for various causes.

The cynicism of the German editor brought a shower of responses. How objective are your sports writers, one panelist asked? Journalists are also citizens, and journalism is not a difficult task to master, commented another. In response to the German editor's architecture question, another question was posed: Would you want all your parliamentarians to be lawyers since lawyers are the people who know best how to write laws?

Citizen journalism's benefits were also listed by the many attendees. It gives voice to the voiceless. It establishes a standard of skepticism that is much welcomed after the disastrous wars that the establishment media got the western world into. And, it provides context and diversity, increasing civic participation and producing unprecedented depth and richness.

One participant claimed that it was not proper to give citizen journalists the power of setting the agenda the way professional journalist do. To this, a panelist responded by insisting that citizen journalism complements and does not replace the existing media, and that it does not work in the absence of professional editors. However, the panelist insisted that it might not be a bad idea if it did cut into the exclusivity of mainstream newspaper journalism. He noted that citizen media is fresh and vibrant, a much needed change given the staleness and arrogance of traditional western media, which among its most recent sins, has given a blank check to those propagating the unjustified war on Iraq.