For the last couple of years, I’ve been studying citizen journalism (CJ). I’ve always thought – perhaps naively – that good journalism is essential for making democracy work. CJ is a particularly interesting development because it pulls journalism into civil society and has the potential to be inclusive of more ideas and types of people. The opportunity is to have a kind of journalism that looks a lot like Habermas’ blueprint for a public sphere.
When I first got into the research, I wanted to ask some simple questions: how big is CJ? How is that changing? Beyond the few prominent examples, what do most CJ web sites cover? We collected a near-population of CJ sites and conducted a content analysis of a subset to start to answer those questions. (The paper where Ryan Larson and I offer some answers to those questions is under review).
As we began looking at our data, one of the stories that we uncovered surprised me. CJ as a field was professionalizing in big ways. In an article with Emma Connell and Erin Meyer in Information, Communication, & Society, we showed that there are a surprising number of professional journalists working on CJ sites. When we presented that work at ASA in San Francisco in 2014, Sarah Sobieraj (Tufts University), who was serving as discussant, encouraged us to further investigate the role of editors on CJ sites (Thanks, Sarah!). It’s a big sign of professionalization that CJ sites, with their potential to reinvent journalism, would adopt the role of editor standard in professional journalism.
In the new article, “Editorial Gatekeeping in Citizen Journalism,” I look at precisely this issue. What are the characteristics of CJ sites that have editors? And do CJ sites with editors produce content that is more like professional journalism than sites without them? In the article, I argue that having editor(s) serves two functions for the CJ sites that adopt them. First, they serve as legitimating organizational structures or that they’re important as a symbols of being “professional.” Second, they act as citizen gatekeepers who help their sites produce content that looks more like professional journalism. They’re more than just symbols; they actually do something differently. The findings suggest both are going on.
In short, the introduction of editors in CJ is an important way that this potentially radical field has become much more professionalized. As I say in the Discussion section, “…many scholars fancy CJ quite radical and powerful. However, the narrative that professional journalism is declining and CJ is gaining power fails to recognize that the organizational structures, symbols, and practices of professional journalism still carry great weight in the field of CJ.”