Just a Blogger AvatarCitizen Journalism? But . . . but . . . That’s #JustABlogger

Internet users can harness technology to raise awareness of community and political issues that are being ignored by the dominant or mainstream media and launch a resistance effort. These new ways of reporting stories have been called citizen media, participatory journalism, or citizen journalism. Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, noted the grassroots frustration with local newspapers and media outlets failing to cover community news appropriately: “There’s a feeling of, If ‘Big J’ journalists won’t cover our communities, we’ll do it our way” (as cited in Lasica, 2008, p. 25). These “community media” sites, the first of which can be traced back to 2000, stemmed from the same frustration with gaps in mainstream news coverage that conservative writers and journalists argued was going on in the late 90s.

Andrew Breitbart and Matt Drudge, conservatives who turned to the Internet to investigate and break stories that weren’t getting traction in the oft-cited “liberal” mainstream media, might be considered some of the most well-known individual practitioners of citizen journalism. Though both Breitbart and Drudge had a background in professional writing (Breitbart initially helping Ariana Huffington develop HuffPost) and were already actively engaged in journalistic activities, many of which were based online, they inspired an entire movement of average citizens, laypeople, to engage in journalism. These citizens took to the streets to capture on-camera footage of newsworthy stories that they believed were being ignored, overlooked, or inaccurately editorialized by the mainstream news outlets. This activity is what J.D. Lasica (2008) referred to as “random acts of journalism” (p. 26).

The trend of citizens reporting the news grew in popularity around the same time as did blogging, making it even easier for average citizens to get their stories out to the public. With nearly everyone having a cell phone with picture and video capabilities—and little more than Internet access needed to create and post these stories, pictures, and videos to a blog—digital activism took on a new life.

Some political bloggers, such as conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, were able to grow their online readership because they were also recognized TV and news personalities. Others seemed to rely on validation and recognition of the mainstream media, which eventually would come.

This new form of journalism was challenged very quickly by the establishment (“old”) media, with former Washington correspondent with National Public Radio Juan Williams inadvertently becoming the poster child of the anti-blogging position. In a Fox News panel Malkin and Williams sat on together in June of 2012, Williams launched a public attack on the practice of citizen journalism, dismissively telling blogger Michelle Malkin he was “a real reporter, not a blogger out in the blogosphere somewhere” (Hannity, 2012).

The Malkin-Williams exchange propelled a meta-movement of sorts, with activist bloggers taking to Twitter to express their outrage at the journalistic elites like Williams who publicly mocked the practice of blogging. These protestors documented countless examples of citizen journalists exposing government waste, uncovering abuses of power, showing sides of stories that had been missed or downright ignored by their mainstream counterparts. They tweeted their stories on the hashtag #JustABlogger as a way to ban together and form a sort of counterpublic. The community that was forged as a result of the #JustABlogger movement began working together to share one another’s stories, driving massive increases in traffic to conservative and libertarian blogs. Eventually, many of these blogs would come to be validated by mainstream news outlets who began citing them as sources for breaking news.

We also saw a great deal of spontaneous, amateur journalism throughout the peak of the Occupy Wall Street movement, much of which ended up being referenced in mainstream media sources. Today, citizen journalism has brought international attention to major social and political movements, where citizens understood a crisis was brewing and change was desperately needed (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, 2005; Arab Spring, 2009; Voluntad Popular in Venezuela, 2014).

Perhaps we want to teach, as part of our instruction on evaluating and understanding primary and secondary source material, examples of citizen journalism. Though they’ve been popularized by late-night comedians, man-on-the-street interviews are a great way to introduce students to the concept of citizen journalism. It seems that rather than try to debate the value of this or that (digital activism or boots-on-the-ground activism, popular media or citizen media), we should recognize that each has an appropriate role in the conversation, a seat at the table. We should be working to decide how to harness the most powerful tools for the right rhetorical situations and to identify the areas where there is mutual interest and opportunity to collaborate or hybridize efforts. Exposing students to this new and evolving form of journalism is an excellent opportunity for teachers of writing and rhetoric to teach critical reading and critical writing skills. As academics and activist teachers, we are keenly aware of the fine balance of power in our world. Checks and balances are essential, and participatory media is perhaps one of the most effective ways for us to demonstrate how what we do in the classroom translates to meaningful writing in the real world.

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