Ethics of citizen media research

Authored by: Sandra Smeltzer

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Citizen Media

Print publication date:  October  2020
Online publication date:  October  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138665569
eBook ISBN: 9781315619811
Adobe ISBN:


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Citizens who produce, disseminate, and consume their own media, or who disrupt and subvert existing media, challenge traditional mass media structures. This entry focuses on key ethical issues associated with conducting research on both digital and low-tech, dis/embodied citizen media practices. It opens with an overview of challenges related to such research, including: gaining access to participants; fluid technological landscapes; shifts in ‘real life’ socio-political environments; the ephemerality of much on- and off-line media; the veracity of media content and authenticity of participants; and the lure of technologically determinist narratives and ‘success stories’. Throughout the circle of inquiry, researchers must be reflexive and deliberative vis-à-vis participants’ consent, vulnerability and safety. These ethical considerations “are heavily contextualised by the researchers’ own positionality” (Gillan and Pickerill 2012:135), power relationships and “various degrees and kinds of difference (e.g. gender, ethnicity, age, class, sexuality, etc.)” (Routledge 2004:86). These concerns are heightened where repressive forces persecute citizens who disseminate media that challenge political, economic and socio-cultural status quos. Researchers must judge the implications of drawing attention to these practitioners, especially those who are marginalized and vulnerable, and recognize they often want anonymity and privacy (notwithstanding the publicness of their media dissemination). Private sector actors may also leverage tools at their disposal to limit the impact of citizen media. Similarly, material and immaterial labour issues need to be addressed, as well as the ethics of studying media practices that advance causes and perspectives antithetical to those of the researcher. This entry will conclude with a discussion of the ethics of knowledge production, including problematizing who benefits from the research; balancing support for, and critique of, citizen media; and the ethics of asking citizens to give their time and energy to participate in one’s research.

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