’We are Al Jazeera, not Charlie!’ Who then are the citizens?

In January, leaked emails of Al Jazeera journalists revealed that the attack at Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was more than just a tragedy to the ’journalism world’.

The attack sparked a polarising debate in the newsrooms of Al-Jazeera pitting journalists uncomfortable with the French satirical magazine against those believing in its unrestricted freedom to publish controversial cartoons. But what is perhaps more interesting in journalism research was a debate online that followed the raid’s coverage by the Middle East-based international news outlet. The debate started after the National Review published the contents of leaked emails of Al-Jazeera journalists in the wake of the deadly attack. (Alleged Muslim extremists killed ten employees of Charlie Hebdo, including cartoonists who had been instrumental in the newspaper’s publication of controversial drawings of Prophet Muhammad.)

The emails had detailed a clash over the guidelines on the coverage of the terrorist attack issued by Salah-Aldeen Khadr. In his memo, Khadr had opposed an open support of an editorial policy sympathetic to Charlie Hebdo, and signed off with a declaration: ”We are Al Jazeera!” The UK’s Guardian wrote that the Al Jazeera emails exposed a rift between journalists over the question whether the news organisation should support a campaign under the banner ’Je suis Charlie’— I am Charlie. The aim of the campaign was to protest against a perceived threat to freedom of expression through the attack on Charlie Hebdo by Islamic extremists.

What followed the exposé by the National Review were thousands of comments on Twitter, blogs and online news forums. The sudden interest in Khadr’s Al Jazeera edict degenerated into a debate on media freedom and responsibility of journalists. One thing stood out in this debate: it was citizen-driven. Views of journalists and politicians were buried in the floods of comments by online users, and it is likely very few scholars offered to give their views on social media platforms.

Indeed, media organisations and journalists are today increasingly becoming subjects of scrutiny of ’armies’ of online users who question ethical practices and editorial judgments. Journalists face criticism from citizens who now seem to be interested in the workings of traditional media more than ever before.

But is the increasing interest in the journalism practice by citizens important to media scholars today? Yes! The field of media accountability in journalism studies has for decades defined the debate on how to find the middle-ground between journalists’ responsibility and media freedom. As Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs increase platforms through which media coverage and the journalism practice are evaluated and questioned, it is important to understand what this new level of participation means for journalism.

The possible transformation of media accountability is what has inspired my doctoral research (see more under Node researchers). I am particularly interested in bloggers who criticize the traditional media by pointing out unethical practices of journalists or errors in editorial judgments. Hopefully, the research will throw more light on how the increasing citizen participation is changing the way journalism scholars should understand media accountability.

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