Citizen Journalism and Democracy: How User-Generated News Use Relates to Political Knowledge and Participation

Article excerpt

The contribution of professional journalism to democratic citizenship is well-established, but the proliferation of online user-generated news begs the question of whether citizen journalism plays a similar role. Use and trust of both professional and citizen journalism were investigated for their associations with political knowledge and participation. User-generated journalism was negatively related with knowledge of national political figures, but strongly and positively associated with higher levels of online and offline participation; professional news media produced gains in knowledge and offline participation. Trust in user-generated news amplified the link between citizen journalism and online participation.

Journalism has long existed in the service of informed democracy1 producing knowledgeable and politically engaged citizens.2 Nevertheless, most of the existing research is based on professional journalism as embodied by the mainstream press, which has suffered a steady decline for decades in the United States and elsewhere,3 accelerated by online news services.4 With the increasing popularity of so-called "citizen journalism,"5 the time is ripe for scholarly inquiry on the contribution of this type of news content to the production of an informed citizenry.

The well-established function of professional journalism in producing knowledge and motivating political participation is a benchmark to measuring the role of citizen journalism, which has been referred to as participatory journalism6 or user-centered news production.7 Social media strategist Lasica has described blogging as "committing a random act of journalism,"8 while others debate whether blogs compete with or complement mainstream news.9 Given the established role of consuming traditional media in political knowledge and participation, this study investigates whether consuming citizen journalism can, in some small way, fill that same role.

Literature Review

News Media Types. The present study examines professional media use across numerous platforms, including in print, on air, and online. At major newspapers, online unique visitors now exceed print subscribers by more than ten to one,10 and the online audiences are growing as print and on-air audiences contract.11 Still, newspaper subscribers spend much more time reading their print newspaper than visiting the online version, and while the number of households watching television online has doubled since 2006, broadcast TV still far outperforms the "second screen."12 Given this complexity in the contemporary media environment, both online and offline traditional media were combined into a single professional news media use variable. By contrast, citizen journalism differs in that it is produced by amateurs, often with less editing and less rigor.

News Media Use and Political Knowledge. Political knowledge is a function of opportunity, motivation, and ability.13 While formal education increases the ability of individuals to process poUtical information,14 and events such as election campaigns and political discussions can motivate people to follow public affairs,15 one of the most consistent findings in the communication literature is that news media use is positively associated with higher political knowledge.16

Traditionally, newspapers outperform television and radio news in informing citizens, even when controlling for the larger audiences of television news,17 while high attention can increase the informative value of television news.18 Online information has also been found to make a unique contribution to political knowledge.19 While some online content producers, bloggers specifically, have been described as "people who are not journalists,"20 a substantial proportion of blogs is devoted to public affairs content.21 This study focuses more on Web sites sponsored by mainstream news outlets like CNN's !Report. The source for news matters in producing knowledge. …