Working with Citizen Journalists

The relationship between citizen journalists and traditional media has been described by academics as ‘multi-faceted’.[1] Although not always easy, the interdependence between citizen journalists and mainstream news outlets has tightened in the wake of the broadband revolution and the unstoppable rise of social media.

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It is important that citizen participation from local populations is encouraged by established media professionals, in order to promote greater representation in the media landscape. By encouraging ordinary people to identify and publicly share the realities of their lives (as shaped by inequalities and injustices), they are encouraged to exercise their right to a narrative. The development of a voice can ultimately help citizens speak in ways that may de-center dominant news discourses.

This then allows the media to foster accountability in locations that urgently need it, i.e. in media dark areas and conflict zones.

What is Citizen Journalism?

Citizen journalism can mean different things to different people. Laura Ahva describes citizen journalists as “in-betweeners” who perform in a liminal state between full-time professionals and random individuals committing one-off acts of journalism.[2]

Citizen journalists are essential in representing marginalised groups in media dark areas: areas where little or no reliable media is present.

In the view of Free Press Unlimited, citizen journalists work best if they are connected to professional media outlets. These can train and maintain networks of citizen journalists and provide editorial support. This is important because it supports self-regulation and adherence to ethical standards and provides an extra check against spreading misinformation.

Citizen journalists have created new approaches in newsrooms, journalism training projects and journalism research; these sectors must continue to respond and adapt. Citizen journalism not only facilitates greater public debate and prompts mainstream media to evolve, but it can also enhance social and cultural cohesion in local communities.

Training citizen journalists

In order to enable citizen journalists to contribute meaningfully to their communities, structured and tailored training is required. Proper mentorship builds up the confidence of citizen journalists, not just reporting skills. This is best achieved through face-to-face training, which is especially beneficial to support the development of voices that are typically excluded.

The training experience of FPU partners

Indonesian Association for Media Development (PPMN)Increasing citizen journalism participation during a pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, PPMN had to be flexible with the trainings they had prepared for citizen journalists. Believing that citizen journalists are essential tools on reporting ignored issues for marginalised communities, PPMN created an empowering training programme for 10 female editors in 6 remote areas in Indonesia. Despite some of the training taking place online, their management skills, knowledge on gender mainstreaming and leadership skills improved after the training.

PPMN also provided 1500 citizen journalists with protective equipment to enable them to safely report on the coronavirus. The participation of trained citizen journalist networks means that they have been able to disseminate important health communication in communities during the pandemic, and have reached out in particular to vulnerable women and children.

Citizen journalists keep the independence in independent media. It is crucial that these journalists are trained and have access to established media networks, preferably with editors that have professional journalistic backgrounds.

Once citizen journalists are adequately trained and supported, they can become reliable sources of information for their local communities and act as the bridge between citizens and policymakers.

Speak up Zambia!Broadening the selection criteria for citizen journalist training

In Zambia, women are barely heard and are rarely part of public debate. Furthermore, there is little interest in the Zambian media for Kanyama, the largest slum in Lusaka. In this context of poverty, marginalization and traditional norms and values, the Mama Sosa citizen journalism pilot training was aimed at getting young women in this area to speak up, tell their stories and become more critical about issues in their communities.

Initially, the selection criteria for participation in the pilot required a certain level of English and existing digital skills. However, the Mama Sosa coordinators soon realised that the program needed rapid adapting midway to incorporate these skills into the training; it was wrongly assumed that the participants already had these skills. Due to the coordinators’ flexibility, and the lowering of the participatory threshold, the trainings had a greater impact: providing educational recognition to girls that have not received this before proved very empowering.

The training experience of these two FPU partners demonstrates the need for tailored citizen journalist trainings that cater to the specific needs and contexts of the participants.

Example – building a citizen journalist network in Pakistan

PakVoices is a strong network of well-trained citizen journalists, to bring attention to under-reported areas and call for action on important social and community issues. Here’s how the network was set up:

1. Establishing PakVoices

Bytes for All first established the web portal PakVoices, which soon became the go-to media platform for citizen journalists in the region. Then in 2017, B4A established a citizen journalism centre called PakVoices. The centre has emerged as a pivotal source of information and alternative platform for the citizen journalists who would not otherwise have access to press clubs.

2. Activating citizen journalists

B4A trained citizen journalists from different regions of Pakistan who now contribute to their local news platforms via the PakVoices platform.

3. Success stories

Due to PakVoices citizen journalists’ investigations and reports, several important outcomes have been achieved on a local level. Read about them here.

These success stories demonstrate that citizen journalists can hold power holders to account effectively. What they need is professional training, a platform and a supportive network.

Citizen journalists in conflict

“In war and conflict zones, information is in short supply as rumors, propaganda, and misinformation substitute for accurate news and information”.[3] Therefore, in conflict situations, citizen journalists become indispensable. Sometimes, their voices are the only voices that can reach the outside world and alert the international community to the reality of the violence or human rights abuses being committed.

However, this raises ethical issues for the mainstream media outlets that depend upon citizen journalists in conflict situations. Frequently, the traditional media appropriates the reporting of citizen journalists in dangerous situations. The ‘duty of care’ the mainstream media has to citizen journalists is a pressing question, and especially in conflict. You can read more about the Safety of Journalists in our guide here.

On the other hand, Krajewski and Ekdale identify a ‘participation gap’ in some disaster reporting.[4] They noted that in the reporting of the Haitian earthquake citizen content produced by westerners was prioritised which replicated the long-standing domination of international news by those from the Global North (p.136). This example shows how citizen journalism can further marginalise underrepresented groups if local voices aren’t prioritised.

Generally, in conflict zones, local communities and audiences are more likely to trust citizen journalists than ‘industrial’ media outlets. This allows citizen journalists to generate important transparent relationships with the victims of conflict.

IWPR training of Syrian citizen journalists

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) created a 5-day training program for citizen journalists in Syria. Yousuf and Taylor’s article Helping Syrians Tell Their Story to The World explains the process. Training these participants to simultaneously produce quality journalism and stay safe has become a priority; Syria is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.

In-person media training is held in north-western Syria whenever it is safe to do so. Yousuf and Taylor explain that “participants are recruited by word of mouth, personal nominations, and flyers in the community center. Training sessions can be mixed gender or all of one gender” (p.311).

The trainees start with basic workshops on print journalism, and receive one-on-one mentoring during the intensive curriculum. The trainees also learn about digital safety which is becoming and increasingly dangerous domain for citizen journalists to navigate. Yousuf and Taylor put it directly: Digital security has become a matter of life and death” (p.311).

Here is a summary of the IWPR 5-day training:

  • Day 1 – news production process (leads, article outlines) and ethics.
  • Day 2 – interviewing, quoting and finding subjects for interviews.
  • Day 3 – start drafting feature stories and learn how to write short reports.
  • Day 4 – continued work on the feature story.
  • Day 5 – trainer and peer feedback on stories.

By the final day, IWPR aim to have all participants complete the drafts for their articles. Editorial guidance, mentoring and financial assistance continues after the training and eventually, participants can have their stories posted on the Damascus Bureau website.

Aiming for objectivity

Self-organized citizen journalist can play an important role in fact checking. They can collect and assess content during the initial days of often chaotic situations. This assists mainstream news and other organizations in identifying and verifying information.[5]

Sometimes however, citizen journalists in conflict are accused of being too subjective and unable to represent the situation in a neutral way. This can make global news networks less inclined to amplify the reportage of citizen journalists in conflict zones.

Fortunately, this issue can be rectified through the implementation of ethical standards. See our case study of the Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM) to see how a level of objectivity can be maintained in conflicts, by laying out ethical principles for journalists to adhere to. A similar fact-based style of reporting can be fostered among citizen journalists to enable reflective reporting to both attract the amplifying powers of mainstream media and to build trust across their divided communities.

Technology, social media and citizen journalists

Today, citizens can be both the consumers and producers of news, and this is largely due to technological advancements that allow citizens access to the same tools as professional journalists. However, this greater accessibility to media-production raises issues of media literacy.

Read more on the relationship between citizen journalism and media literacy:

Additionally, corporate news is better positioned to dominate and exploit the internet. It is a common belief that social media levels the playing field, giving the opportunity for anyone to report from anywhere. However, established networks have more funds to track social media dynamics and pay for advertising.

This means that citizen content still cannot be heard without amplification from larger mainstream news outlets, despite the improvements to technology and its accessibility.[6] However, there are some tools to look out for, aimed at empowering citizen journalists to independently produce and share their own content without the inout of mainstream news outlets.

Citizen reporter apps

Here are a couple of free apps which citizen journalists can use to break live and local stories.

App nameDescriptionKey Features
StoryCheckAimed at reporters working in under-resourced newsrooms, and less experienced freelance journalists without access to story briefings editorial input. Lists the information needed to properly cover stories ranging from accidents to courts; crime to disasters; profiles to obituaries, and more. – simple interface
– interview guidelines
– writing tips
-how to count a crowd
– reporting checklist
Here, citizens report and update the news by taking pictures and videos with their phones. Short captions and tags are added to provide additional detail

– breaking news alerts
– snap, upload, and share
– local breaking news stories
– Search by keyword, topic, story, author, location or tag
– content warning for your stories if violent/upsetting


[1] Wall, Melissa (2017) “Mapping Citizen and Participatory Journalism” Journalism Practice, 11:2-3, p.134.

[2] Cited from Laura Ahva’s “How is Participation Practiced by ‘In-betweeners’ of Journalism” by Wall, p.135.

[3] Yousuf, Mohammad & Taylor, Maureen (2017) “Helping Syrians Tell Their Story to The WorldJournalism Practice, 11:2-3, p.302.

[4] Wall, p.136.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cited from Nikki Usher’s “Professional Journalist, Hands Off! Citizen Journalism as Civic Responsibility” (2011) by Wall, p.137.