CITIZEN journalism is a term media theorists use to refer in part to people who do not work for established media organisations but use personal websites such as blogs to write about news events. Uganda has had blogs for some years now (over 200) on various topics raging from day-to-day life to sports, political commentary, religion and technology.
During the Mabira Forest give-away chaos, a young Ugandan with offices in the city centre was posting updates every hour of what he saw from his window.
The mainstream media are larger and more powerful but slow. Bloggers on the other hand can switch and adapt quickly. That is why this sort of citizen journalism thrives in moments of chaos such as the post election violence in Nairobi. While the mainstream media focussed on the fighting in the streets and villages, bloggers told us about the silent homes, supermarkets, kiosks and bars.
The mainstream media told us about thousands of people who died during those dark weeks, but the Kenyan blogosphere also gave us an insight into the thoughts of the hundreds of thousands in Nairobi who lived through those weeks. Does this manoeuvrability mean that citizen journalism, or blogs, will replace the mainstream media? It is doubtful.
The mainstream media has a number of flaws. It is slow and a business. Every media organisation that carries adverts is compromised. Furthermore, competition means you have to pander to the customers and give them what they want even if it is not necessarily. These media products also cost money in the cases of newspapers and cable news, so they only inform those who can afford it. Thus, the tiny, independent, free blogs which are beholden to no one may look superior.
But for all its weaknesses, I still believe in the ideals of the free press. I believe in its standards and its traditions. I believe in impartiality, in full disclosure, in seeking both sides of the story, in checking and cross checking and in training and qualification.
I also believe in the parts many do not like: I believe bylines are not about ego but about reporters staking their reputation on their word. I believe in the photographer taking pictures of the mob justice instead of trying to stop it. I believe in putting the bad news on the front page before the good news. When the principles are followed, the truth is told.
But blogs do not have these standards. They are not accountable to anyone, not even themselves. With citizen journalism, you remove the weaknesses of the traditional media, but you also remove its strengths.
Bloggers are notorious for spreading rumour and half-truths, for being used by one party against another, for pushing dark agendas. If you want examples of how the blogosphere can spread falsehood and deceit, ask Barack Obama, who has suffered all campaign long from smears and lies against him that spread from blog to blog.
The number of blogs started by Ugandan reporters and editors that are only updated once in a months is testament to the fact that the good stuff is still in the papers.
Meanwhile, half-informed, conspiracy theorists and rumourmongers and even outright liars continue to thrive under the pretext of practicing citizen journalism. That underscores the difference between citizen journalism and professional, real journalism.
Whereas bloggers can, should and write their thoughts and views on whatever issue, journalism is a calling and to serve as a journalist you need to dedicate yourself. It will be a long time before amateurs clicking away on their coffee breaks will be able to usurp the position of the traditional professional media.
The writer is a journalist
Citizen journalism changing the media