Citizen Journalists: Authors of the First Rough Draft of History?

As public relations’ practitioners, we must be prepared not only present information on behalf of an organization to our stakeholders, but also for them to reply with their side of the story. Increasingly, practitioners are seeing stakeholders challenge the narrative through the publication of blogs and microblogging (e.g. Twitter). It is important to consider how these technologies impact the work of professional communicators.

The role of the citizen journalist has an important place in society, and professional practitioners would be wise to recognize this. Citizen journalism can often be the leading edge of sparking a conversation about important topics to raise awareness and possibly, bring about change.

However, the ease with which anyone can start a blog, it can be difficult to determine what is noise and what is not.

According to Statistica.com, there are nearly 392 million blogs which have been published, including this one! In reviewing the data on blog, that number only increases year after year. But unfortunately, for the reader not all of them have quality and/or relevant content. However, for those writers for whom have something important to say, in the ability for a single person to speak out from darkness to shine a light on key issues, there is power.

In this week’s post, we review the impact of the published writings of everyday people and how they can lead to greater awareness.

Modern: A Diary by “Gul Makai,” a BBC Blog

In 2009, a 14-year-old girl began blogging for the BBC after she and other girls were banned from schools because of their gender. She blogged under the name of Gul Makai, a pen name. For Malala Yousafzai, the blog became an outlet to the world to speak out on the Taliban limiting of a generation of girls achieving their full potential.

Her series of blog posts share in vivid detail what life was like for at the time in Swat, Pakistan. The isolation from an education she loved and her fear for an uncertain future.

“I am upset because the schools are still closed here in Swat. Our school was supposed to open today. On waking up I realised the school was still closed and that was very upsetting.” – Malala Yousafzai

Yousafzai, an international education advocate, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17, and has since started a foundation to continue her work.

Read more of Yousafzai’s blog posts.

Retro: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

I was in ninth grade when I read Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl. I know this because I remember being about the same age as her when she wrote in captivating detail about her life as a Jewish person hiding inside the Secret Annex during 1940s’ Amsterdam. From behind a rotating bookshelf, Frank detailed what life was like for her and seven others living in silence. Her diary was the one place she could use the full power of her voice to tell the story of how Nazi occupation affected her life. Wise beyond her years, she had much to say.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” –Anne Frank

This young woman wrote of love, hope, maturing and more through of one history’s darkest moments. She shone a light on making the world a better place, even if it is in your own little corner of the world.

Frank’s dream of becoming a book author was realized when her father published her diary in 1947, which has since been translated into more than 70 languages worldwide.

Learn more about Frank’s life.

Final Thoughts

Blogs seem to be the great equalizer—giving everyone a voice. However, the role of the citizen journalist done effectively can be a chronicler in real time of events on the ground. Oftentimes, these citizen journalists provide a perspective that a traditionally-trained journalist just can’t match: the raw emotion of a story told in first person by the one living it. The ability to share from the human condition in a raw emotion is served best by being uncensored.

Frank described it like this in her diary: “Because paper has more patience than people.”

The writings of both Yousafzai and Frank highlighted what life was like during the occupation of their respective communities. Amid the isolation of the situation, both looked to moments of normality as a sign of better days to come. Tragically, for Frank, that day never came, but her words are immortal.

Both journalists and citizen journalists have the ability and the responsibility for shaping the narrative on a given topic for generations to come. It is from these accounts that historians can add layers of color to the geo-political issues affecting the world around us.

Many journalists give former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham credit for being the first to describe journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” – Jack Shafer, Slate.com

Certainly, this is the role Yousafzai and Frank played in telling their own story.

In the March 2014 edition of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the article, Citizen Journalism: Valuable, Useless or Dangerous, points to citizen journalism as being a double-edged sword. For the awareness that citizen journalists can bring to a topic, the information presented may not be told from an objective point of view:

Citizen journalists have provided real-time descriptions of events and subcultures seldom if ever covered adequately by traditional media. However, the absence of journalistic background, editing, and quality control have often led to biased, inaccurate, low-quality pieces.

Something that can lead to more confusion for the reader is something that may lead them there in the first place: good design. According to Julia McCoy of Expresswriters.com, a highly-polished blog equates to credibility to the reader who may assume the blog has more credibility than it should.  This is may contribute to the reason people have trouble discerning fact from fake when information is presented in a blog format as compared to its more traditional news media sources.

All the more reason for professional communicators to understand this as they are preparing a strategic response.

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