Roz and Leanne Allen stand in front of the Butcher’s Choice section of Loblaws. Dressed in dark grey dress pants, black shoes and a brown shirt, Roz holds a small pink and white video camera. “Okay, everybody, we made it into one of Toronto’s biggest grocery stores and Maple Leaf is back in a big way,” she says as she picks up a package of Macaroni & Cheese Loaf. “Here we are in the meat aisle. There’s Maple Leaf cooked ham, roast beef, oh, and Leanne’s favourite, pickled pork cottage roll.”
Leanne, who wears knee-high black boots, long black shorts and a black coat, holds up some meat. “Should that have been on the shelf in the first place? I think there’s a mistake,” she says. Roz adds that Maple Leaf Foods packages 80 percent of the meat on Canadian shelves under a dozen different brands, information given to her by the guy stocking the meat shelves at another grocery store. (Maple Leaf says 80 percent is erroneous and declines to confirm how many brands it has.) It’s late October 2008 and Maple Leaf products have returned to shelves across Canada, but the Allen sisters are still wary. “So how’s a shopper to stay safe?” she asks. “The price was our tipoff. The Maple Leaf stuff was all on sale.” Leanne leans over the bologna and ham, checking out the prices. “It’s all on sale, but it’s only a buck off! If this shit’s gonna kill me, don’t I at least get it half-price?” After a dozen or so takes, the Citizen Janes, as the Allen sisters call themselves, make the short drive back to their Jane Cave, a small basement apartment in west-end Toronto, to edit the footage.
Professional reporters may scoff at these untrained journalists. “I hate the term citizen journalism,” says Mathew Ingram, communities editor and former new media reporter for The Globe and Mail. “It sounds so dumb. It sounds like some kind of wacky group. What it makes me think of is citizen’s arrest. It makes me picture these do-gooders with fedoras on, with the word ‘press’ in their hatbands, wandering around pretending to be journalists.” But the amateurs aren’t going away, because more and more members of society want to participate in the gathering and sharing of news and opinions. Some are happy contributing to blogs and indie sites, but others want to be part of the traditional media machine. Unlike old-fashioned tipsters, they often provide usable photos, videos and stories. So news organizations are increasingly relying on readers, listeners and viewers for material-much to the chagrin of critics, many of them paid journalists, who point out that having the technology doesn’t necessarily guarantee having the know-how to do the job properly. Like it or not, though, citizen journalists are starting to take work away from the pros.
Kris Reyes sits at her desk, clicking away at her computer’s touchpad. All around her, land lines ring, cellphones go off, fingers fly across keyboards and people run around or talk on camera. Despite the frenzy in the newsroom at Toronto’s Citytv, Reyes is on Facebook. But she isn’t chatting with friends or checking out new photo albums. She’s researching. She posts a question as her status each day and then checks to see how people respond for her CityOnline show. Along with seeking opinions from viewers, Citytv allows people to send in pictures and videos from around the city for the “It’s Your Story” section of its website. After researching today’s topic-some Torontonians have yet to receive the new garbage bins the city insists they use-Reyes picks up the phone and calls Kevin Gaudet, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and Glenn De Baeremaeker, chair of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. They will be her guests on the half-hour program.
After a makeup artist sweeps Reyes’s eyelids with a shimmery silver colour, the host goes back on Facebook and posts a new question asking if anyone wants to Skype during the show. Reyes believes it’s more important than ever for news organizations to recognize that people want to capture stories on their own. She admits that soliciting information from the public means getting some unusable material, but, she says, “The reason I decided to do this was I have a firm belief that the best stories are in the hands of the viewers.”
Citytv is far from the only news organization using these unpaid reporters. The Hamilton Spectator, for example, encourages people to write their own stories rather than just sending in news ideas and photos. Thespec.com offers seven guidelines for writing stories: spell-check, focus, length (700 words), contact info, be fair and truthful, be flexible, be interesting. Most stories run online, but some also run in the paper. “We want to help the public develop some skill and fluency in what it is that we do,” says senior web editor Tom Hogue. “People want to contribute to stories, but people don’t have the training. So we believe that we can help shape some of their thinking and assist in their writing.”
Meanwhile, digitaljournal.com, a grassroots news site; rabble.ca, a Canadian site dedicated to social justice and progressive politics; and other indie internet ventures welcome stories from “professional journalists, citizen journalists, bloggers, passionate writers and regular Joes and Janes,” according to Chris Hogg, editor-in-chief and writer at digitaljournal.com. “It gives people the power to publish,” he says. “Citizen journalism goes where mainstream doesn’t.”
And it often gets there first. When someone gets shot, a propane depot explodes or rats frolic inside a restaurant window, amateurs can take photos and videos, and post them online before professional news teams even reach the scene. “Citizen journalists scoop the mainstream media on so many occasions,” says Stephen Dohnberg, a writer for Dynasty Communication, which publishes three alternative newspapers in Ontario.
Not everyone is impressed. Critics argue that this content isn’t good enough or accurate enough to be useful because there’s no guarantee the providers are following well-established standards regarding research, balance and ethics. “It comes down to proper training and professional standards, which most citizen journalists don’t have,” says Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press. “There’s a level of editing, proofing and checking that’s not often there.” For most professional journalists, the goal is to sort out the facts and write a clear story without bias, so readers can decide for themselves what to believe. But Christopher Waddell, associate director of the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University, is concerned that many of those now playing the role of journalist just want to tell stories from their points of view. If the amateurs don’t gather as much information as possible before they sit down to write a story, they won’t get as complete of a picture. Citizen journalism, says Waddell, “offers a perspective, but you have to be very careful about the perspective and not assume it’s the entire story.”
Since false information and rumours spread so easily on the internet, Kelly Toughill, formerly of the Toronto Star and now an associate journalism professor at the University of King’s College, worries about the commitment to getting it right. “Through citizen journalism and through the web, I do think there is a real danger in relying on people who don’t have any training or background in the rigours and discipline of journalism and whose livelihoods don’t depend on it.” White, who admits there’s value to people reporting on what’s going on around them, sums up the disdain many pros have for the wannabes when he says, “If it’s talking about what Lindsay Lohan has done, maybe you don’t give a shit about the facts.”
But not all stories are as trivial as some young celebrity’s latest escapade. For example, a lot of the initial news from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 came from citizen journalists. There were people at the scene blogging about the chaos and taking photos of the destruction with camera phones. But these reports fed unsupported rumours such as exaggerated body counts and unproven stories of rapes and gang violence in the Superdome. According to Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture, “The most accurate and objective reports instead came from professional news reporters who brought us high-quality photographs of the disaster and information from key figures like the New Orleans police, rescue workers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as first-hand accounts from the citizens and victims themselves.”
The pros aren’t perfect either, of course, and have damaged reputations-or worse-with errors, rumours, defamatory comments and even fabrications. But editors and lawyers do their best to keep those errors to a minimum. Citizen journalists can’t claim to have the same safety net. “A significant percentage of the public believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and John McCain sired an African-American baby-both the result of some citizen putting it out on the internet as a legit story,” wrote former journalist Tom Alderman, now a media analyst and trainer, in a Huffington Post blog. “That’s scary.”
It’s around 9:30 p.m. and the Citizen Janes are heading back to the Jane Cave to review their tape. Energetic, youthful Roz with her boy-short hair, glasses and small frame, and Leanne, with the same energy but a more mature manner, don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they do. They consider themselves guerrilla journalists and have a lot of fun with their “gonzo” approach. Says Roz, “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get the story.”
The Citizen Janes went to Parliament Hill hoping to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper to eat a Maple Leaf meat sandwich. Leanne shoved the camera in her bra for that one. When they walked onto the red carpet in front of Harper’s office and past the ropes that were supposed to keep them out, an alarm went off and guards escorted them out. So they stood in front of 24 Sussex hoping to get the PM to come outside. When a cop told them they needed a permit to protest, they asked, “How is it protesting asking Stephen Harper to take a bite of a sandwich?” They eventually left but haven’t abandoned the idea as they work on a pilot for a CBC online show called Citizen Janes.
Back in the Jane Cave, the two women are surrounded by a big TV, a desktop computer, two laptops, a small video camera, two director’s chairs and fuchsia walls, one of which is covered in green tape holding notes about their show. They felt they never had a voice growing up in a small-town B.C. trailer park. “There was that feeling of kind of being silenced,” says Roz, “and nobody around me that really understood. So it pushed me to have that voice.” Adds Leanne, “To me, a part of citizen journalism that’s really important is original voice.” Her experience running a magazine allowed her to work with recent graduates from journalism schools. “I found that it was really kind of a monotone voice coming out of j-school.”
But the Allen sisters, both in their 30s, didn’t just walk out of a trailer park and set up the blogs and videos on citizenjanes.com. In 2000, they started Off-Centre, a small B.C. magazine. They’ve also worked for various comedy shows on radio and television, and even did some more traditional journalism. Roz, for example, had a syndicated column for CBC Radio and has written for This Magazine. This may make them sound more like freelancers than citizen journalists. But while others are still snapping photos of fires on their cellphones, the Allen sisters argue citizen journalism has come a long way and is now about doing something independent. “If it’s self-produced and you have your own camera and you don’t have a team of people around you,” says Roz, “then that’s true citizen journalism.”
Armed with that rationale, they signed with the public broadcaster to produce an online show. “I think networks like CBC feel the wave of citizen journalism cresting and they have to ride it before it crashes,” says Leanne. Tom Anniko, executive producer for CBC comedy and drama development, gave their pilot the green light and says he was looking for something that could work as original web content and as a radio show. “It was an idea I thought was really intriguing and a couple of people I thought had the chops to deliver.” Traditional journalists may take some solace in the knowledge that the show is for the comedy and drama department, not news. But the line is blurring there too. And the question becomes: if the Citizen Janes are producing a pilot for CBC, are they still really citizen journalists?
While journalism schools may be full, reporters-unlike doctors, lawyers and engineers-don’t need professional accreditation to do their jobs. In a society that values freedom of speech so highly, such gray areas are unavoidable. And there’s a telling irony in the fact that the name Citizen Janes is a riff on Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s fictionalized account of the life of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. “It’s about a guy who gets into journalism for the passion of it,” says Leanne, “and ends up kind of selling out to the corporation.” Kane’s success actually makes him the corporation, something the Janes say they’re in no danger of becoming (so far). But the more news organizations rely on citizen journalists, the more people will wonder: who’s selling out to whom?