The Evolution of Citizen Journalism

12/09/2016 08:01 am ET

When the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was approved, "freedom of the press" applied strictly to the liberty to write utilizing a printing press. The printers of 1775 didn't stick to publishing newspapers. To financially survive they made the bulk of their money printing for customers. The publications and leaflets printed during the American Revolutionary age were biased and grew more so as the struggle continued.

In "We the Media," Dan Gillmor looks at the roots of citizen journalism when pamphleteers like Thomas Paine and the anonymous writers of the Federalist Papers printed their own publications. The "citizen journalists" began the tradition in America that continues as more people distrust mainstream media despite falling for fake news from sites such as InfoWars.

In 1999, Seattle activists organized a reply to the World Trade Organization being held in the city. The demonstrators knew they could get into the corporate media by extreme methods: obstructing the roads. They recognized that one minute of television would only reveal arrests by law enforcement and lack any context explaining why they were demonstrating. The idea for a different media paradigm was created. The "Indymedia" evolution underwent explosive growth and now is active in over 300 cities globally.

At the same time, "journalism by the people" flourished. Helped by the emerging Internet which fostered weblogs, chat rooms, wikis and mobile computing, more individuals were participating and generating news that was overlooked and ignored by corporate media which had an agenda. Even IndyMedia couldn’t be everywhere at once and guerilla journalist found another niche to fill.

The idea of this new form of reporting, also called "participatory," "democratic", or "street" journalism is built upon the foundation of public citizens taking an active role in the collecting and disseminating of news and information.

The words are not celebrated among conventional journalists. The website, New West, uses the term "unfiltered" for its submissions and instructs contributors: "Don't let the citizen journalism title alarm you. Your submission doesn't need to be structured. It can rant, rave, rhyme or be a book. Anything you believe in sharing."

Citizen journalism should not be confused with community or civic journalism. Collaborative writing is a different concept and social journalism is still something else entirely.

With advancing media technology mixing social networking and media-sharing sites, citizen journalism is becoming more accessible to individuals. Often, because of technology, citizens report breaking news quicker than traditional media reports.

Outstanding examples of citizen journalism covering major world events include the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Arab Spring, the 2013 protests in Turkey, the 2014 Ferguson unrests and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Some other instances of makeshift citizen reporting include:

Trent Lott resigning as the U.S. Senate's majority leader in December 2002 after bloggers kept the focus on a racial slur the politician made,

Conservative blogs undermined reports linked to President Bush's National Guard Service

Numerous individuals pulled together to help recognize the lead of the Lonelygirl15 videos on YouTube as an actress from New Zealand.

A Lockheed Martin designer took his account regarding safety defects with Coast Guard vessels direct to YouTube following mainstream media's scorn.

In 2016 citizen journalism is evolving again. Where earlier attempts at guerrilla journalism had a demonstrable bias, today's organizations are gathering facts and information and pushing it out unfiltered.

Groups such as Lawless Media focus on helping readers and viewers understand events in near real-time. Putting people, places and events in context permits the public to see different viewpoints and make up their minds. Lawless Media incorporates traditional documentary videos and articles in the national press with the non-traditional as they work to advance public awareness.

Danielle Finger, co-owner of Lawless Media, is an artist who addresses issues from poverty to police brutality to corporate influence. Using kitsch, iconic imagery, and satire, she cuts through social justice issues to examine the darkest parts of the human condition.

"My images mean different things to different people depending on their perspective. My goal is to make people stop, think, question and explore the world's issues we face and explore themselves and their own motives," Finger said.

Cory Clark, co-owner of Lawless Media, said, "At the end of the day, the object of our work is to inform our readers, to inspire them to find positive solutions to the day's issues and try to rectify social skills. Going into a Trump presidency seems all the more important to us."

Lawless Media has a GoFundMe project currently active.

Jerry Nelson is an American freelance writer and ghostwriter now living the expat life in Argentina. Never far from my coffee and Marlboros, I am always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email me at and join the million-or-so who follow my life and work on Twitter @ Journey_America.

My latest book, "Don't Polish the Turd and Other Writing Tips" is available on Amazon.

Thanks for being part of my wild and wonderful journey called life.

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