Citizen journalism is all about expression, an urge that goes way, way back in time. Expression allows human beings to wrest order from chaos, make sense of tragedy and draw blueprints from a shared experience.
Throughout history, expression has always run into a counter force. The world has never lacked for individuals or institutions eager to justify a clampdown on expression or, at least, filter this through a dominant lens.
But human beings have always managed to wriggle through the censors’ nets. The Inquisition, colonial rule, martial law or China’s great firewall — people found a way to tell their stories.
Citizen journalism was conceived as protest against the over-centralization of media and our perceived failure to reflect the audience’s reality. It aims to bring more focus on authentic voices and forms of expression.
The plaint is valid on many levels: Rating and circulation wars, advertising pressure and ownership structure may influence the news agenda.
Technological innovations broke the media’s near monopoly in the gathering, processing and mass dissemination of information. Citizens — our public — then grabbed the chance to tell their stories in their own voice, from their perspective.
After the initial shock and discomfort, journalists welcomed these new voices. Because let’s face it, even under ideal conditions, a media company – no matter how rich or big, cannot be everywhere, all the time.
Journalists weren’t around to record the Maguindanao massacre. Those who were on site were dead.
Sure, authorities would have eventually announced the facts of these murders. We would have seen shots of body bags, grieving families, heard figures on extrajudicial killings.
But one picture plucked the massacre from the cold morgue of statistics and created an emblem for impunity. One picture; sent by a Bayan Patroller, an anonymous citizen journalist.
ONDOY & CROWD SOURCING
Just before that, in September 2009, Typhoon Ondoy took media by surprise. Our news teams were trapped – like everyone else.
But almost simultaneously with the first frantic phone calls, came a sea of photos and videos — sent through mobile phones.
In those crucial hours, citizens stepped into the breach, reporting from areas media vans could not reach. Citizens became field reporters as they waited for rescue on their roofs, ledges and wherever they had taken refuge from rising waters.
During Ondoy and Pepeng – the typhoon that swept through central and northern Luzon as the national capital struggled to recover — citizen journalists generated more than 10,000 photos, video clips, text and voice and email reports.
Citizens with access to power helped media vet raw information and come up with visual guides for rescuers.
Citizens told media – and the government — where help was most needed, where relief was not getting through. They advised volunteers on which NGOs had too many helping hands and which needed more warm bodies to pack relief packages.
Reporting on this complex process, broadcasting and uploading almost every step of the way, is called crowd sourcing. Ondoy was the first real display of the power a mass of citizen journalists could generate.
After the debacle of Sendong — when some key officials of the Aquino administration were caught napping and fussy protocol became an obstacle to disaster management — the government’s more savvy communicators started to reach out to the millions of Filipinos on social media.
We hear talk of private-public cooperation, but this, I believe, is by far the most meaningful. The goal: Saving lives. Mahar Mangahas, the badly treated staff of Pag-asa; the MMDA, Undersecretary Manolo Quezon, Tonyo Cruz, a host of citizen and professional journalists — all worked together to create a massive alert network.
Later on, Quezon would even invite bloggers’ networks and citizen journalists, including Bayan Patrollers, to give their assessment on what aspects of disaster management had improved and what remain problematic.
The more visible disaster mitigation agencies have since tweaked their communications systems: junking jargon, for example, in favor of simple, graphic terms that even kids understand.
Some do get it. It makes you wonder then — why a mass of people deemed critical in the business of saving lives would soon after be treated as the enemy. But I’ll get to that later.
WHO IS THE CITIZEN JOURNALIST?
There was a time when only the media’s imprimatur conferred an event with the status of news. We were the only gatekeepers. Everyone came to us for access to news platforms. Think of the world as a bar and we, the bouncers.
In our absence, people can – and will — tell their stories. They will fill the vacuum. Social media is their platform.
Expression is a basic right and opinions are valuable –except to people who think their supposed moral purity negates any need for criticism. But expression isn’t enough. A citizen journalist needs to be a storyteller. You need to gather, process and disseminate your news. You may also add value the day’s news by linking events and their lessons to your life experience, giving insights others can relate to.
BRAVE, NEW WORLD
Citizen journalists train the spotlight from the macro to the micro.
A big rural bank in Laguna closed. Media knew nothing about it until Bayan Patrollers wrote that an entire local government bureaucracy had lost hard-earned savings.
The websites of Phivolcs, the USGS, Pag-asa, nababaha give us critical raw data on earthquakes, typhoons and amount of rainfall. But citizen journalists, supplementing the work of professional journalists, ram home the magnitude, the breadth and depth of misery during natural disasters.
When we’re not around, citizen journalists are there.
- Seamen record their rescue of Iligan residents swept off by Typhoon Sendong’s torrents.
- A young businessman documents a New People’s Army raid on a Surigao mining camp.
- Miners send images of a landslide.
- A small village in Nueva Ecija sounds the alarm on a massive tree-cutting spree.
In newspeak, these are scoops. To many professional journalists, these are badges of glory. To citizen journalists, these are records of their lives.
Social media and citizen journalism have also empowered overseas Filipinos. They used to be silent heroes, with an audience limited to kin and friends reached by tape-recorded messages sent by mail or hand, or expensive phone calls.
Social media has given them a voice.
In Libya and Bahrain and Syria, they sped up government response by showing dramatic evidence of their plight amid conflicts or injustice, demolishing government attempts to sugarcoat the truth.
We were told no Filipino got hurt in the Bahrain street protests, in an Israeli bus stop blast.
Bayan Patrollers sent in photos and email narratives of Filipino casualties – and the less-than-responsive attitudes of some embassy officials. They showed that OFWs do not just complain; they dig deep into hard-earned savings, share their time and their lodgings with those in need of succor.
In Libya, seconds after an official claimed there were just 1,000 Filipinos left amid fighting a Bayan Patroller corrected that error.
There were 1,000 Filipinos, in Tripoli alone, he said. He gave the contact numbers of a priest who knew where Filipinos were huddled in distant desert camps, and patched us up with a labor attaché verified his the figures. From the besieged city of Benghazi, from many barracks on the sands, came photos and videos of how they coped amid fighting and rebel incursions and dwindling food supplies.
In Japan after the tsunami, from Irabaki, Chiba and Miyagi, Bayan Patrollers organized their communities and used social media and BMPM to help a beleaguered embassy’s rescue efforts.
In Fukushima, where the tsunami caused a melt down in a nuclear power plant, four caregivers sent a different narrative: They were staying put because conscience would not allow them to abandon elderly wards. Joie Aquino, Gemma Juanay, Sandra Otacan and Juliet Tobay would later be honored by the Japanese prime minister and, subsequently, by our own government.
It would take a book to enumerate the stories media would have missed without citizen journalists. I’ve just mentioned some breaking news.
ARMY OF CHANGE
The boom of social media has led to so much user-generated news reports and images that people are asking: With the tools of technology getting progressively cheaper, can citizen journalists replace the professional reporter?
The answer is, No.
But that’s not even the right question. The real strength of citizen journalism is engagement, the synergy created when professional journalists work with that army of change.
Bayan Patrollers do not just run to us for help. Our social pact calls for them to initiate that first step – approaching the appropriate government officials or agencies. As they gather and process their reports, we transfer some knowledge on governance processes, on laws, on other aspects of their stories.
See, perspective is both a strength and weakness in citizen journalism. Citizen journalists have enriched media, given us a more intimate world. They force journalists beyond our comfort zones and cookie cutter reportage.
Yet the raw reports by citizen journalists, especially on problems and conflict, need context and balance if we are to use these as springboards for change.
I cannot overstate the change that happens. Citizen journalists may start with one perspective – theirs. That’s natural. They’re talking about their lives. But among Bayan Patrollers, I’ve seen a chat or two work wonders.
Success is a great teacher. A report that brings change prods a Bayan Patroller to test his skills again. The second report is always way better than the first.
After a while, they become co-mentors on our Facebook page. They also begin to look beyond their villages and schools, reaching out to other communities that need help. And they do not stop with reporting.
Gaining confidence in expression leads to action.
Overseas Filipinos have used social media to spread good governance concepts and the idea of self-reliance and accountability in their hometowns. I’ve seen them chip away at dependency. In the past, with few tools of oversight, they were passive financiers of families and neighborhoods. With 24/7 communications, they have leveraged their economic power to change attitudes.
In San Miguel, Bulacan, OFs gladly shared their wealth to rehabilitate a perpetually flooded communal space. But they demanded equity from those back home – labor, project management, auditing. At the conclusion of the first phase, elevation, they took the project further. They built a playground and eventually, a multi-purpose hall – without a single centavo from the government.
In Sorsogon, an OFW on vacation pushed a village to volunteer money and time and physical strength to replace a washed-out passage to a bridge.
The blogger Reyna Elena coaxed hometown friends to organize a letter brigade that forced rehabilitation of road hundreds of school children use daily. A bigger group provided poor families with school kits.
Geography is no longer a hindrance to action. Strangers from different parts of the world helped track down a family of a Korea-based compatriot critically injured by an abusive partner. They raised funds to defray medical costs. They took turns as hospital watchers until her relatives arrived.
The same thing happened in Israel when a domestic worker fell victim to stroke. Filipinos even paid for her ticket home.
The members of Tiramisu, a sub-group of Bayan Patrollers, are scattered across Asia, the Philippines and northern America, but that has not stopped them from relief efforts and school drives and other mercy missions. Always, they demand counterpart action from home-based partners.
Members of the Harutan group, meanwhile, seek out other Bayan Patrollers for communities that fall between relief cracks. They are a diverse group of entrepreneurs and struggling minimum-wage workers with a year-round calendar of activities. They have also grown to become ambassadors of citizen journalism, doing interviews and documentation, engaging in public speaking to stress the importance of initiative and assertion.
Citizen journalists can be very noisy – and very critical – but they are not jaded kibitzers. They fill more than the information vacuum; they step in when government is absent or is slow to respond to community needs.
Oh, they rant and they rave. But they act.
Citizen journalists will push their viewpoints, but they are not close-minded. They are simply starved for engagement. They want officials and companies that respond to their queries.
Like all of us, they are angry when ignored. But I’ve seen them repay attention with genuine efforts to see where the other side is coming from. They’ve also become skilled negotiators, sensing instinctively where engagement ends and cooptation begins.
Engage them, show them you care about their stories, and you build respect, if not loyalty. Ignore and patronize them at your peril.
Citizen journalists have learned to collaborate, to work together so their reports and advocacies have more impact. They now swap services and skills. They have learned to work in shifts so that targets get no reprieve.
NOT THE ENEMY
There are many dangers in the brave, new world. Via Twitter, @WestWingReport says, “social media can fuel our nasty partisanship, because it enables us to insulate ourselves from those with whom we disagree.”
Anonymity can breed abusive behavior. Uncritical acceptance of posts and promiscuous sharing and re-tweeting can make lies go viral. But most social media users and citizen journalists are responsible. And they are fully capable of taking on these ills.
I see Bayan Patrollers regularly call out misbehaving peers. People may call me “ma’am” on my Facebook page; that doesn’t stop them from correcting typos and factual errors or misperception. The permanently shrill eventually find their selves ignored even by those who share their views.
Citizen journalists do not need a messiah to save them from themselves. They have not taken kindly to people out to do digital “salvaging”.
The virtual world reflects the “real” world. People scorn someone who charges in with a plan to save them – without having asked about their needs and dreams.
I know big firms and governments and politicians – and NGOs — pay analysts and third parties to study communities. Maybe they should try to take the time out to really listen to people, to integrate with them in their homes, in their villages, in their gathering places. That should give “do-gooders” better insights on what moves people – and what leaves them cold. And you don’t have to be the guinea pig.
Citizen journalists can seem like a dangerous force. But there is one thing you must not forget. If they’re telling their stories, if they’re out there complaining, it’s because they have hope – that problems will be solved, that someone will listen, that someone will work with them.
Tear down your walls. Enter into their world and benefit from the wisdom of the crowd.
Save your resources for other more urgent tasks. Do not treat your people as the enemy. Or, as Raul Manglapus warned not too long ago, “then build a wall around your home… build it, place a sentry on every parapet!… for I who have been silent … (and just found my voice) will come in the night when you are feasting (and carousing), with my cry, and my bolo (and my algorithms) at your door.”
[This is a modified version of my recent short talk before the Pubic Relations Society of the Philippines (PRSP) Congress ]