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Citizen Jane, and Other Volunteer Journalists: Why Do They Do It?

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Three women shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize awarded this weekend for "their non-violent struggles for women's safety and for women's rights to participate in peace-building work."

Among them was Tawakkol Karman, a 32 year old Yemeni mother and founder of the women's advocacy group, Women Journalists without Chains. The website's content, though hastily posted and rife with English errors, conveys the urgency of the group's mission to shed public light on the horrors of human rights abuses committed in the context of corrupt patriarchal governments. People like Karman come to journalism not in search of career, but because they cannot suffer the world's cruelties in silence.

I have been searching for a way to shed some light on why some Americans I have recently come to know are likewise finding their way to journalism as an act of conscience. These are people who have come to The Huffington Post as voluntary citizen journalists, to help illuminate what is going on in America today. Given the economic maesltrom we may or may not survive, growing public unrest and the deeply worrisome erosion of our basic civil rights, you could say that, like Tawakkol Karman, they are committing acts of civic journalism by documenting these events.

As it turns out, Karman was one of the heroes named by American citizen journalist Mark Taylor-Canfield just last week, when I asked him straight out: Why do you do this?

Taylor-Canfield, 38, a Seattle musician who writes for various independent publications, has been spending a great deal of time this fall with the Occupy Seattle contingent, publishing his accounts on our citizen journalism platform, Off the Bus.

"I am inspired by independent journalists like Karman and Amy Goodman," he said. "Alternative media is where my heart is."

Another Off the Bus contributor I'll call "Citizen Jane" to protect her privacy, has over the past few months spent all her free time documenting the Occupy movement in the city where she currently lives. Her involvement had a particular edge to it: Jane was, for a time, a prosperous real estate investor and home builder. When the housing market crashed in 2008, she lost absolutely everything, including the home in which she lived. She survived by returning to her previous career as a free lance writer/photographer, but the experience of bankruptcy had marked her.

"I've been both the 1% and the 99%, and basically have resolved that we are all America, and we are all paying a very high price for the decisions of a few," she said. "The whole foreclosure aspect of the Occupy movement is hitting very, very close to home -- pun intended."

Citizen Jane's formative years might be traced to the civil rights movement, which she witnessed as a white child in Mississippi who sympathized with the cause of racial integration.

"As a kid I would go and sit in the 'black' section of the movie theater, and was always getting hauled out of there by white adults angry that I had crossed the line," she confided.

Taylor-Canfield got his start at the Independent Media Center in Seattle, established by various alternative media organizations in 1999 to provide grassroots coverage of the WTO (World Trade Organization) protests in that city. This past winter that he took participatory journalism to another level, when he joined a 6-day campout on the Washington State Capitol steps in solidarity with the massive protests underway in Wisconsin.

"We were setting up live media streams, and I just became so inspired that I stayed the night, and then more nights, instead of just going home," he recounted.

He has been similarly inspired by the people he has met at Occupy Seattle, although, he stipulated, "I have my differences with some of them."

It is that kind of admiration that keeps drawing Jane back for another event, another photo shoot, another story. She says she is not concerned that she might be compromised by the amount of time she has spent with the activists, walking alongside them in marches, interviewing key participants, "really getting to know the faces of the movement," she said.

"When you're doing citizen journalism, you have a chance to do this," she said, "because you're there on your own time. No one else is directing how long you should stay, or what you should report."

Some readers -- and even editors -- might understandably question whether the ideal of objectivity is compromised by this kind of coverage. Taylor-Canfield had a ready response for that challenge.

"I respond to the accusation that we cannot be objective if we are a part of the movement this way: we cover what we believe is important to cover. In some ways we are less biased than the mainstream press because we're not looking for a spin. And we're not going in and out in 10 minutes like they do," he explained. "Citizen journalists stay as long as they want to, on the ground, earning trust, talking to activists in depth. These people tend to be the ones who really know what's happening. We are like the embedded journalists of this movement."

Citizen Jane says that the beliefs she's formed as a result of her experience just fuel her passion to accurately convey the real import of the movement to the rest of the world.

"In my own life, I'd seen the power that the people [in financial institutions] have over the majority of Americans, which is why I have these sympathies. The system is characterized by a real unfairness. And if things are ever going to change, it's going to come because of these young people -- and some older ones too -- who are out there putting it on the line."

Like Taylor-Canfield, she is careful to maintain a certain independent judgment and identity.

"I wouldn't say that I am a part of the Occupy movement....I've just become more convinced than ever that people should have a voice," Citizen Jane said, a hint of Mississippi still detectable in her melodious voice.

"If everybody were to stay home and keep their mouths shut, the way they tell us to -- we'd be in even worse shape. We'd never change."

As an editor who supervises these contributors to Off the Bus, I've come to admire their dedication and sincerity, their hard work and democratic intentions. That's "democratic" with a small "d."

Did I mention that there are also citizen journalists writing about the 2012 elections?

Watching some of these campaigns and debates, I might even admire them more.

If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to the Huffington Post's coverage of American political life, please sign up at www.offthebus.org.