Recently, I had the great opportunity to work with Joanna Krajewski (a Ph.D. candidate in SJMC at Iowa) on a project about the limits of citizen journalism, using a case study of CNN iReport coverage of cholera in Haiti. While citizen journalism offers the potential to elevate marginalized voices and challenge dominant discourses, it is important to critically examine the content of citizen journalism to better understand how well it lives up to this potential. Although others have published useful political economic critiques of CNN iReport, we focus less on the institutional structure of iReport and more on the iReports themselves. Such an approach runs the risk of “punching down” (something we took great care to avoid), yet we argue for the need to deeply engage with citizen journalism content to see whether it reproduces or challenges dominant discursive formations.
The resulting article, “Constructing Cholera: CNN iReport, the Haitian cholera epidemic, and the limits of citizen journalism,” was just published online by Journalism Practice. The article will appear in print in 2017 as part of the special issue “Mapping Citizen Journalism: in Newsrooms, Classrooms and Beyond,” guest edited by Melissa Wall.
Here’s the abstract:
Ten months after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, the country was forced to confront what has since become the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Haiti’s reputation as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and cholera’s stigmatization as a disease of the poor contributed to a dominant narrative in Global North news media in which the outbreak was seen not only as tragic but also inevitable. The failings in traditional news media provided a valuable opportunity for citizen journalism to elevate marginalized voices and challenge dominant narratives. Our study examines whether citizen journalism lived up to this potential through a discourse analysis of CNN iReport coverage of the Haitian cholera epidemic. Our findings demonstrate that iReport coverage failed to close the participation gap between the Global North and Global South, reproduced familiar narratives of Americans as heroes and Haitians as victims, became home to rumors and misinformation, and reproduced tropes of Haitians and cholera victims as backward and ignorant. In short, our study found that iReport coverage of Haiti’s cholera epidemic embodied the same discursive formation as that of traditional Global North news media. In closing, we argue that scholars must exercise caution when applauding citizen journalism without first critically examining citizen journalism content.