FEBRUARY 2020 - Citizen Journalism in the Era of the Coronavirus
Photo Caption and Credit: Depiction of the COVID-19 virus. (Courtesy of PIRO4D/Pixaby)
By: Grace McCauley
Citizen journalism refers to ordinary citizens who use their platforms or unique insights to get important information out to the public. Often citizen journalism can be seen in times of war, natural disaster, or social unrest. Recently, COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus, has lent itself to many citizen journalists trying to inform the public. Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, two citizen journalists in China, were trying to get the “actual” information about the coronavirus out to the people of China (BBC, 2020). As described by one New York Times article, the pair used videos showing candid footage of what was happening outside of hospitals and around Wuhan (Wang, 2020). With heavy censorship from the government directed at news outlets in China, it has been hard for news outlets to cover the Coronavirus. According to an opinion article from the New York Times, this is the first time China has seen social media used as a vessel for citizen journalists (Repnikova, 2020).
Fang and Chen went missing after they released the videos on their social media accounts. Fang posted a video on YouTube, focusing on the town itself, which is banned in China but accessible via VPN (BBC, 2020). Chen also posted a video to YouTube, focusing on the situation at local Wuhan hospitals (BBC, 2020). Both Chen and Fang’s social media accounts have been deactivated, and the government has yet to comment (BBC, 2020). According to an article in the Washington Post, Chen and Fang have been “detained” by security officials, but not much else is known (Shih, 2020).
This is not the first time that this type of government control has led to citizen journalism. Since China has large global social media outlets, such as Twitter, blocked, Chinese citizen journalists, use government approved sites like Weibo to spread information (Luo & Harrison, 2019, p. 73). In China, citizen journalists were able to break the news about the Wenchuan earthquake (Luo & Harrison, 2019, p. 74 ). In an NYU Abu Dhabi study conducted in Hong Kong about citizen journalism amidst the COVID-19 crisis, researchers found that citizen journalism should be able to work even under authoritarian governments or dictatorships as the loyalists will remain loyal either way (Chih-Hsin Sheen et al., 2020, p. 9). In fact, the study looked into the case of Chen, who is well known in Hong Kong for his YouTube, and found that people were more likely to trust the government if Chen were to endorse their ideas (Chih-Hsin Sheen et al., 2020, p. 5).