Accessibility links

Citizen Journalists Cover US Election for Internet

The first events of the U.S. presidential election season, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, drew coverage from all the major news media, but many people followed the events on internet sites featuring ordinary citizens as journalists and commentators. VOA's Greg Flakus caught up with some of the practitioners of this so-called "new media" in Des Moines and filed this report.

At this year's Iowa caucuses there were about 2,500 accredited news media representatives, most of whom work for major newspapers, magazines and television networks. But there were also many citizen journalists working for non-traditional outlets, including small publications, internet blogs and video web sites.

At the Des Moines Convention Center, Google Incorporated, operated a lounge for reporters featuring video streams from its YouTube web site projected on the walls. YouTube is encouraging average citizens to document the campaign and provide their own insights using small, affordable camcorders and computers.

Google Political Director Steve Grove says YouTube is a platform for ordinary citizens with their cameras to explore issues and express their ideas.

"The great thing about YouTube is that anyone can upload anything they want, with their viewpoint on the issues and you do not have that traditional filter of the media deciding what is right and what is wrong," he said. "It is the voters decision to say, 'Hey, here is what I think and here is the video that demonstrates that point of view and it is your choice whether to look at it or not.' "

One of the most prolific groups putting videos up on YouTube is called "Why Tuesday?"

WhyTuesday? Executive Director Jacob Soboroff argues that the U.S. political system in some ways discourages people from voting, noting that elections are traditionally held on Tuesday because that was convenient for farmers in the nation's early years. But he says it makes little sense in today's urban society.

"What we are saying is 'Let us take a good, hard, honest look at the state of the voting system, have an open and honest conversation about it.' We are not giving answers, we are just asking provocative questions about it," Soboroff said. "We think that by having an open conversation we can get to some good, non-partisan solutions to help increase voter participation in the United States."

Soboroff says Why Tuesday? also benefits from video submissions by ordinary citizens who record encounters with politicians at all levels.

"People are becoming journalists themselves and putting their elected officials on the spot about something that in the mainstream media you do not hear much about and that is what can we do to increase voter participation," he said.

Keeping a wary eye on all this is Drake University Political Science Professor Arthur Sanders, who sees promise in the technology.

"The web technology, the way it has evolved makes it easier for individuals or groups of people to have information sites and not just for politics, but for anything you can imagine," he said. "People with an interest in politics decide to report on politics. It is an empowering shift for citizens because they have a lot more control over it."

But Sanders also sees danger ahead as traditional mass media outlets lose readers and viewers to the often less reliable and fragmented new media sites.

"There is a risk, there is a danger that we become tribalized [fragmented into partisan interest groups]," he said. "The internet as a technology, this kind of diversified technology, runs the risk of dividing us up much more fully."

Sanders is also concerned that these grassroots blogs and video uploads tend to attract people who are intensely interested in only one or two issues and fail to provide a broad forum where all issues can be discussed.

"Newspaper readership and traditional television news viewing is down, some of these other forms are up, but they do not seem to be up enough to compensate for how much the other forms are down," he said. "One of the impacts of this technology is smaller numbers of people actually paying attention to politics. Now, those who do pay attention have more resources than they ever had before."

Sanders and other academic researchers who follow developments in politics and journalism will be studying further the impact of these new grassroots media as this election year unfolds.