The Role of the Citizen Journalist as a Guardian of Social Justice

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

The citizen journalist has evolved into a major player in the social justice movement permeating American life. The historical role of local newspapers has been to report and editorialize on local issues. This is true for small-town newspapers as well as large metropolitan newspapers. The rise of the Internet as a news source has led to the demise of many local newspapers across the country. As bloggers have become an ever-present source of news across the Internet, the public’s interest and engagement in blogs has broadened the acceptance of citizen journalists as legitimate sources of information, specifically on matters of social justice. The citizen journalist is now established as an ever-present source of information in the nation’s small towns and large cities.

Who Is the Citizen Journalist?

Wikipedia defines citizen journalism as “public citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information” (“Citizen Journalism,” n.d.).

In “The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism,” Outing (2005) describes the early relationship between news editors and citizens and how they report information on events and community issues. He offers suggestions on how news agencies can learn to establish relationships with “bloggers”—the first modern form of citizen journalism in the 21st century. Outing clarifies the concerns for accuracy, appropriateness, and content value in information found on public online blogs. Since Outing’s article, the invention of the smartphone has revolutionized and redefined how and what citizen journalists choose to upload to social media.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, was established in 1968 as a vanguard in the protection of human and civil rights. The King Center holds continuous workshops that help ordinary citizens learn how to help protect civil liberties. In this context, the role of the citizen journalist becomes an important source of information about human and civil rights violations. The King Center maintains a strong library of social justice training resources. Annually, the King Center offers summer training camps in the philosophy and action techniques of non-violent protest. The camps are essential to keeping Dr. King’s dream alive. As violent encounters and incidents involving police increase, the role of the citizen journalist is becoming essential to victims, lawyers, and the courts.

The Southern Regional Council, a civil rights research center, produced Cite>Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a CD series that tells the the history of the Civil Rights Movement through the stories and songs of the foot soldiers of the Movement. Will the Circle Be Unbroken was used as a teaching tool in many schools throughout the South from 2000-2005 (Smart-Grosvenor & Bond, 1998).

Can Citizen Journalism Be Taught?

In 2004 the Corporation of Public Broadcasting co-produced a study called Television Goes to School: The Impact of Video on Student Learning in Formal Education, as a resource for educators and public broadcasters (EDC). The report supports the effectiveness of video technology as a teaching tool. Using video as a vehicle for social justice is becoming an important part of how journalists learn their craft in the nation’s top colleges and universities. For most of the history of this country, newspapers, and then television, have been the sources of legitimate news gathering and reporting. University schools of journalism train students to be professional journalists who as graduates occupy news anchor desks at the local, regional, and national levels. As anchors, these graduates have a major influence on the news Americans receive during every primetime viewing period of the day. At some major universities, the roles and responsibilities of community journalism are embedded in teaching the fundamental principles of newsgathering. For example, Auburn University has established community journalism as the foundation for its school of journalism. Community news media outlets in rural, suburban, and urban communities share a fundamental role: “to help strengthen communities by intensely covering local issues and showing citizens they have a voice in our democratic society” (School of Communication, Auburn).

Citizen journalism is a new breed of news reporting fueled and birthed by new inventions: Internet blogs and smartphones. The availability of new technologies to the general public, specifically to young people, gives every citizen the potential to be a citizen journalist. There are arguments that support and arguments that undermine the legitimacy of citizen journalists. Hazinski (2007) discredits citizen journalists in an editorial for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, entitled “Unfettered ‘Citizen Journalism’ Too Risky.” However, support for greater legal rights and protections was presented in 2013 with The Free Flow of Information Act. The act was defeated.

Recent organized activities at CAU-TV in Atlanta revealed that student news reporters appear to be effective in gathering accurate information from local citizens who witness petty crimes or car accidents, or who are attending public events. The students represented themselves as “citizen journalists.” These news stories were not aired on CAU-TV. The exercise was conducted to determine how the public responds to citizen journalists. The citizen journalists used smartphones and ENG cameras to record citizen comments and their responses to questions. The citizen journalists recorded live footage of spontaneous events and crimes over a period of two days. All footage was of actual altercations, petty thefts, etc., caught on tape as students roamed the streets. Students discussed how the public responded to being videotaped and interviewed, how they determined what questions to ask observers, observers’ attitudes about responding to questions regarding what they had witnessed, and, most importantly, how readily the public responded to students as citizen journalists. The findings of this exercise were that local citizens were accepting of the student (citizen) journalists and willing to provide information freely.

Journalism faculty are faced with a daunting challenge to find a place for teaching the pros and cons of citizen journalism in the journalism curriculum. The growth and development of citizen journalists will most likely morph into nationally recognized networks of citizen-sponsored journalist blogs, news sites, and reporters. As this area of journalism continues to evolve as technology advances, colleges and universities are challenged by how to effectively introduce students to the nuances of the culture of citizen journalism. Faculty have cause to engage students in examining citizen journalistic practices within the context of the journalist’s obligation to protect civil liberties by reporting on social justice issues.


School of Communication and Journalism, Auburn University. (n.d.). Community journalism. Retrieved from

Citizen Journalism. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 26, 2016, from

EDC’s Center for Children and Technology. (2004). Television goes to school: The impact of video on student learning in formal education. New York, NY: EDC/Center for Children and Technology.

Hazinski, D. (2007). Unfettered ‘citizen journalism’ too risky. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The King Center. Retrieved from

Outing, S. (2005, May 31). The 11 layers of citizen journalism. Poynter. Retrieved from

Smart-Grosvenor, V, and Julian Bond, J. (1998). Will the circle be unbroken? An audio history of the Civil Rights Movement in five Southern communities and the music of those times. Atlanta: Southern Regional Council.

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community