A beginner's guide to citizen journalism
Citizen reporter, blogger, independent volunteer journalist. You know that you’re at the start of a major change in the way things work when the new phenomenon spawns a whole raft of names.
Although the buzz over the Internet and especially the whole web 2.0 phase has died down the fact that the technology has ceased to be cutting edge or even unusual means that the really interesting changes in the way people use it are probably happening as we speak.
One of the most visible signs of this is the changing role of the public in the way news is created and disseminated. Wider access to the Internet, dropping prices in digital cameras and the emergence of a range of ways of putting material on the net easily is transforming the way people interact with the media.
Of course, this is not a new idea as as long as the media has been round there have been those who have sought to get their story out to a wider audience without recourse to traditional channels. The difference today is the entry level and the potential number of people who can be reached.
Up till recently media meant heavy investment in equipment, be it the printing press or the TV studio. In addition there was also a similar need for highly trained technicians to use the tools involved. As a result those capable of bearing this financial burden was limited to a lucky few.
All that is changing the cost of putting out a story has effectively dropped to zero. Even the possession of a computer is no longer a pre-requisite as access to the Internet either through Internet cafes or say, public libraries means that nearly everyone can compete on even terms.
What equipment do I need?
At the most basic level nothing more sophisticated than a notepad, pen and cell phone with a camera.
If you have the resources then I would recommend a video camera, a DSLR and a light Wi-Fi equipped sub - notebook. Looking at the prices here in Greece all this would cost you around about 700 euros.
Remember spending a whole bunch of money is not going to help you get your story out. The perfect image, a wickedly edited video clip or state of the art laptop is not what citizen journalism is all about nor can it replace your single, most important advantage - local knowledge.
What sites should I join?
There are a number of news sites that allow people to upload stories to the Internet. This is just a selection of the more popular ones rather than a definitive list. Look out for similar sites in your own area and/or language.
Indymedia (there are branches all over the world, so look for your local one)
ireport (part of CNN)
Also many news sites such as the BBC allow people to upload pictures and ask for written contributions form people affected by news stories. this is often a good way to get in contact with the mainstream media.
If you want to upload video then opening up an account with Youtube and Google Video is a must. Just remember that Youtube’s free account limits videos to just 10 minutes, however, longer videos can be sent to Google Video.
By posting video on these sites you make it a lot easier for people to post them on their own sites. Instead of having to upload videos to each site you contribute to you can do it just once and then embed them wherever you like.
Both Flickr and Photobucket allow you to upload pictures onto the net, to form groups and find the latest pictures taken by people involved in breaking news stories around the world.
Having your own site on the Internet is a great way of increasing your credibility and offers another way for you communicate your stories to a wider audience. In addition the act of keeping a blog updated is a great way of learning writing and presentation skills.
Remember also that the personal nature of blogging means that you can express more personal views or yourself in a more impassioned way.
Here are some of the most popular blog providers;
These are great ways to get in contact with others;
What do I report about?
This is perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome as it requires more than learning a few technical skills and there is no simple answer as everyone is motivated by different things.
However, it is a good idea to start with what you know best, i.e your neighbourhood, profession, social networks you belong to etc.
Alternatively, you could start commenting on what you are most passionate about no matter where it takes place. On the Internet we are free to roam anywhere and learn from many different sources.
Where do I find out about news stories that are not covered in the mainstream media?
As well as our networks of friends and family there also other places on the Internet to find out what is happening in our local area. Look up your town, region in Technorati or Google blog search for the latest developments in the blogosphere. In addition check out what is happening via Twitter search. Twitter is a great source for finding out what is happening now.
Also if there a Indymedia site for your area, check out the latest events and activities.
The most important thing though is to be there. When legendary street photographer Weegee was asked the secret of his success, he replied, “F8 (referring to the camera setting) and be there”. Being on the spot is often the most important thing you can do. All the rest is detail.
How to start writing?
The first thing to remember is that writing is not necessary. A video with you speaking to camera is just as effective as an article and so allows those who do not feel comfortable with the written word to produce insightful reports which can be shared with others. However, some thoughts scribbled down and a couple of practice run throughs will make your ideas a lot easier to follow.
If you do wish to write your stories don’t let the fact that you have not had training in J-school put you off. The style used in newspapers etc. can be picked up quickly if you want to practice. Blogging is a great way of doing so without having to get everything right straight away.
Remember that writing something is infinitely preferable to nothing and people will forgive any imperfections.
On the other hand if you want to be credible then there are some journalism skills that you absolutely have to respect. Accuracy, checking sources and honesty are essential no matter who you are and where you write if you want to be taken seriously. It is not enough to be passionate if you want to reach a wider audiences. Simply repeating or accepting sources simply because you agree with their opinion or point of view will not get you taken seriously.
Double check as far as possible claims you see made in blogs, Twitter etc, go to the original sources, official accounts etc when you can. Do not blindly accept one person’s version of events no matter much you agree with them. If this is not possible then make it clear than the readers know that this story may not be 100% accurate.
Distinguish between opinion and fact. Too often people present their ideas on a story as fact and seem to assume that others will share their view. On the Internet this simply is not true as most of those reading will be neutral and so your impassioned accounts may come over as a rant. A dispassionate tone is more likely to get you the kind of coverage you want.
Of course, if you wish to post to your personal blog and not a news site then you have more flexibility in the way you approach a story.
How to catch people’s eye?
Content is the most important thing. You should aim to make your stuff as interesting as possible. This can be done by using a mix of different media; video and pictures accompanied by text is the ideal combination.
Link to people. If you blog then link to sites that the think other should read, ask them to reciprocate. If you mention other sources in your posts make sure you link to them. This also means that you ranking on Google’s search pages will increase.
Tag everything. Tags are the key words that help others find your stories so whenever you add text, pictures or video make sure you add tags that let others know what is being talked about.
Use RSS. Most sites now allow you to use RSS automatically, it means that people can follow your blogs, Flickr page etc far more easily.
Post widely. If you have a story to tell then post it on as many different sites as possible. Don’t just leave it languishing on your blog. Also join blogging aggregating sites such as Technorati, Icerocket and Del.icio.us. These allow others to find you more easily.
Post regularly. People will quickly stop turning up if you post infrequently and your ranking in Google’s search engine will suffer accordingly. Once a week if you can.
Be credible. If you prove to be a reliable source people will search you out to find out the latest updates on a story.
Be sociable. Join groups on the Internet which share your views and interests. They will help get your message out as well.