Can citizen journalism ever be objective? . . . Should it?

Cross-posted from the Citizenside blog.

Here’s a story: today we received a series of great photos from our contributor pete_riches. He was in central London this weekend and saw one of the visually most impressive demonstrations I’ve seen in quite a while: thousands of UK Sikhs marching to Trafalgar Square in memory of the violence at Amritsar in 2004.

Sikh high priests lead the march through Piccadilly
Sikh high priests lead the march through Piccadilly

And thereby hangs a tale. The marchers told pete_riches they had gathered in memory of the Amritsar massacre. This was the event on June 6th, 1984, when Indian troops stormed the holiest Sikh shrine, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, on a Sikh holy day, brutally massacring over 7000 praying Sikhs.

Others know the Amritsar Massacre by another name – Operation Bluestar, or the Amritsar raid. In the accounts of this event, Indian troops stormed the temple on June 6th, 1984 to dislodge heavily armed Sikh extremists, after a tense standoff lasting several months. The official report of the death toll was close to 300, though some reports eventually put the total at closer to 1000.

Of course, these are two descriptions of one and the same event. C.P. Scott, former editor of the Guardian, famously said that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Many facts can be independently verified and backed up by evidence. But in this, as in many situations, it seems that which set of facts a person chooses to accept depends greatly on their point of view.

There’s no dispute that there was violence at the Golden Temple in Amritsar that day. And it’s sure that this was an important and terrible day in Sikh-Indian relations, which set off a chain of events and reprisals that have caused friction between Sikhs and Hindus in India for decades.

At Citizenside, we’re here to promote citizen journalism, not to take political positions.

In the editorial team, we try to investigate and verify the facts as much as we can. We try to be as open and transparent about our process as possible. And we’re totally committed to the authenticity of the images and videos you see posted here. But unlike many news organisations, we can’t (and don’t) impose some version of objectivity on our members. That’s one reason we deal primarily in images and video; they’re often less amenable to being slanted towards a particular point of view than text. pete_riche’s photo report shows you the scale of this event better than any written report could, and the images speak for themselves; a river of orange turbans flooding Picadilly, stern priests with sabres drawn leading them to Trafalgar Square.

In text, the image description takes the Sikh point of view, presumably as told to pete_riches by the marchers on the day. Rather than change this text to fit with the ‘official’ account of events, we kept it essentially as it was. We believe that eyewitness views are a vital raw ingredient of news reporting. When processed with other ingredients – analysis, expert opinion, and so on – you get the final ‘cooked’ product of mainstream news reporting.

Citizenside news is, in a way, news reporting in its raw form, straight from the eyewitnesses themselves. There’s an essential value to that, which we don’t want to tamper with.

In many ways this raw product should be treated the same as any news reporting: with caution. We show you what’s happening, you make up your mind. It’s not our place to do it for you. What we can do is bring thousands of eyewitness reports closer to you, and make them easier to find.

We’re also building community reporting tools that will make it possible for you to help improve or add to an initial news report, if you were there too.

With many eyewitness reports taken together, we can start building a more complete picture of what happened at any given event. Working together, we can create a shared account that reflects much more than what a single reporter could ever see.

I think that’s really something worth working towards.

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