Saturday, June 03, 2006

WHAT NEXT FOR CITIZEN JOURNALISM?

The Institute of Policy Studies has done the most thorough study so far of independent online reports on the Singapore Elections of 2006. The findings were publicised at a post-election forum on 2 June. The study confirmed the big upward spike in interest in internet coverage of the elections. However, the IPS survey also showed that the internet still could not compete with traditional media for influence, and that most of the online activity did not really amount to true “citizen journalism”: few practitioners were engaged in independent fact-finding, for example. The researchers’ definition of citizen journalism, which excluded commentary, may have been too narrow. However, it is clear that bloggers and other media activists have yet to exploit fully the potential of the internet for citizen journalism. This is partly (but not fully, as I’ll explain later) due to legal obstacles. Assuming both the opportunity and motivation for citizen journalism expands, what should net users do? This question was raised during the forum by ISEAS researcher and former journalist Russell Heng. Let me attempt an answer here.

1. More specialised analysis
It’s often assumed that only professional journalists in the mainstream media possess the resources and access for investigative journalism and in-depth analysis. It is true that paid reporters are probably the only ones that would bother to invest several days in studying some new topic that has suddenly become newsworthy. However, it also true that for any given topic, there are individual citizens out there with expertise and passion that exceeds that of the generalist reporter. Good citizen journalism will take advantage of citizen experts. Instead of relying on a handful of brand-name bloggers trying to be jacks of all trades, we should be networking and aggregating citizens with a special interest and expertise in their chosen area. The best way to do this is through the next step:

2. More links with civil society groups
The heroes of the 2006 blogging phenomenon were intrepid individuals and the occasional dynamic duo. These were inspiring, but, really, successful citizen journalism has to be more organised. This is the main reason why, despite Singapore being ahead in blogging, it is still behind Malaysia in online activism more generally. Malaysia’s online activism has deep offline roots in civil society. Singapore’s citizen journalism must move in this direction. There are already a few good examples, like Chua Ai Lin’s heritage mailing list, singaporeheritage@yahoogroups.com. These bring together citizens with a special interest and expertise, generating enormous social capital and mobilising potential.

3. Counter-hegemonic commentary
Singapore-style propaganda is not so much the propaganda of lies (saying the glass is full when it is empty, like North Korea would), but the propaganda of spin (convincing us that the glass is half-full when it is half-empty). The propaganda of spin is much harder to counter, as it is not just a matter of puncturing it with the “truth”. Instead, citizen journalists who want to challenge PAP dominance have the tougher task of contradicting assumptions that have been elevated to the status of “common sense”. For example, PAP dominance cannot really be challenged without first countering the ideology of “vulnerability”, into which most Singaporeans, including those who want an opposition, have bought. (Janadas Devan during the IPS forum gave another example: the PAP has monopolised the “definition of talent” , which is an even more powerful asset than the monopoly of talent.) Such citizen journalism is not simply a matter of fact-finding and reporting. Essays and commentaries are equally important (which is why these need to be included in the definition of citizen journalism).

4. More laughs
Talking Cock and the mrbrown show are humour sites and not what many would consider citizen journalism. However, they clearly have some political impact. I suppose they are especially poignant in Singapore because of the PAP’s reputation for being humourless and taking itself too seriously. However, I will leave it to others to give more in-depth analysis of the links between humour and radical politics, and will just point out here that citizen journalism in the Singapore context is bound to use more humour, given the success of this strategy in 2006.

LINKS
Information Minister Lee Boon Yang’s speech on 31 May, promising some easing up of online electioneering rules.
Yawning Bread’s report on the IPS forum of 2 June.
To find out more about cutting-edge citizen journalism online, start exploring Dan Gillmor’s work.

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