I had a call last week from a researcher for a big-name journalist, asking a question about the expression “citizen journalist”:
I am primarily interested in finding who coined this term and when it
entered the mainstream media. If you are not sure of the exact timing of
the coinage, I am still interested in when you first heard the term “citizen
journalist” or any other relevant information on this topic. Any insights
you have would be greatly appreciated.
It’s a great question. I don’t have a great answer.
I sent out a Twitter Tweet asking for ideas. One person shot back, Ben Franklin. Certainly Franklin was one of the first to *be* a citizen journalist…
There’s a lot of history, including recent history, to examine. Let’s look, for example, at some newspaper databases — keeping in mind that most newspaper archives went online in this way only in the 1980s. (This has led to the modern journalistic failing, exhibited in this posting, of imagining that the world began roughly in 1980…)
A query on “citizen journalist” in NewsBank turns up a piece by the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Klobuchar, “Work won’t be as lively without her,” dated October 12, 1988. Writing about a colleague, Barbara Flanagan, he said:
As a newspaperwoman, she been a welcome guest in hundreds of thousands of homes for a quarter of a century and as a citizen-journalist she has been a force for good in her community just as long.
I like that. A “force for good in her community” is a high achievement for any journalist.
Jumping ahead to 1995, NewsBank turns up an AP article about Sarah McClendon, who said:
“I’m a citizen journalist ,” she explained. “It means I am trying to do my journalism with the idea in mind I am seeking to give more information to the people of this country for their own good.”
I like that a great deal, too, even with the eat-your-spinach element, because in the end journalism is about giving each other more information for our collective good.
Some people have conflated “civic journalism” with “citizen journalism.” The expression “civic journalism” (also called “public journalism”) was coined in the late ’80s and early ’90s, by Jay Rosen, Jan Schaffer and several others. It connoted the idea that media organizations would help set community agendas in more explicit ways than in the recent past. In a sense, today’s citizen journalism is the outgrowth of this.
What became known as citizen journalism is the result of the digital era’s democratization of media — wide access to powerful, inexpensive tools of media creation; and wide access to what people created, via digital networks — after a long stretch when manufacturing-like mass media prevailed. Blogging was one of the first major tools in this genre.
As I noted to the researcher who asked, not all citizen media is citizen journalism. Most is not.
As to who coined it first in its current, digital-age meaning, or at least came closest, I’m not sure there either. But I’d start with Oh Yeon Ho, founder of Korea’s OhmyNews, who said back in antiquity (2000) that “Every citizen is a reporter.” Mr. Oh is one of the real pioneers in this arena, as we would all agree.
Again, I suspect someone else was ahead of him, even in this context, because I’ve learned never, ever to say someone was first, at least not when I don’t know for sure.
Of course, there’s a debate about whether “citizen journalism” is an expression we want to use in any case. I strongly believe we do, even though non-citizens of specific places can do journalism and participate in media — and they should — just as much as anyone else. My view of it is citizenship at two levels. I am a citizen of the United States, and proud of that. My journalism will, I hope, help fellow Americans. I am also a global citizen, as in one of the dictionary definitions of the word: “an inhabitant, or denizen” — of planet Earth.
That debate is really a topic for a separate post. The most important thing to remember is the democratization that makes it possible for anyone to be part of the journalistic ecosystem. Increasingly, I believe it’s a civic duty, if such an idea still has meaning.
Meanwhile, if anyone has citations of “citizen journalist” prior to 1985 — surely there are lots of them — post them below or shoot me an email. Let’s try to track down the earliest references.
UPDATE: Jay Rosen is trying to nail down a definition for the expression “citizen journalist” here.