The audience is still just the audience

ShareThisAlfred HermidaThere is clearly defined space for the public to participate in journalism, but, writes Alfred Hermida, there are still very few signs that news organizations are reinventing their relationship with the audience.
 

The ability of anyone to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and sharing news and information is seen as one of the big shifts in journalism over the past 10 years.

But a growing body of research suggests that the advent of participatory journalism, or user-generated content (UGC), has done little to change the way the media works.

At the recent Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University, academics presented a series of studies that further illustrated how the mainstream media is trying to tame the phenomenon.

The research paints a global picture of how journalists are seeking to maintain their position of authority and power, rather than create a more open, transparent and accountable journalistic process that seeks to work with readers.

One of the studies looked at the BBC, which is considered a pioneer in the field of user-generated content. The BBC has 23 people working in its UGC hub, up from just three in 2005, and receives thousands of comments and emails every day along with hundreds of photos and videos.

Researchers Claire Wardle, Andrew Williams and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen interviewed BBC journalists in 2007. What they found was that BBC staff see UGC as a part of newsgathering operations; basically, it's a way of obtaining photos and video, eyewitness accounts or story tip.

The researchers concluded that UGC has become institutionalized at the BBC as a form of newsgathering, consolidating the existing relationship between journalists and the audience. They did find some examples of BBC journalists that view it as a way to collaborate on stories, or as a shift towards networked journalism. But these views existed at the edges.

This institutional approach towards UGC was reflected in the BBC course on the topic, entitled "Have They Got News for Us." This session at the conference focused on how to scour comments, pictures and video from the public in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than on how to collaborate with the audience on stories.

No news in comments

Finding newsworthy material in contributions from the public is a challenge. In his study about Dutch newspapers and UGC presented at the conference, Piet Bakker found that there was little news contained in comments on stories.

From the point of view of the traditional journalist, the amount of news in comments was minimal. Instead, comments were seen as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, but these benefits were counterbalanced by problems with abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation.

This ties in to another conference paper that looked at the attitudes of journalists in the U.K. when it comes to user-generated content. In interviews with local journalists working for the Johnston Press, Jane Singer found that most see the public as complementing, rather than replacing, the work of professionals. The journalists saw themselves as UGC gatekeepers, citing concerns about the quality of contributions and legal liabilities.

This approach is understandable at a time when the local press in the U.K. is in trouble. Journalists may feel under even more pressure to justify why amateurs cannot replace them, or offer meaningful contributions.

Singer found that local journalists saw a theoretical value in participatory journalism in that it's a way to promote democratic discourse. But another paper presented by Marina Vujnovic on behalf of an international group of researchers that included myself found that this ideal did not figure highly in the minds of the online editors of newspaper websites. They instead look to UGC to drive traffic, increase loyalty, and provide free content for their sites.

The audience as audience

These were just a few of the more than 100 papers presented in Cardiff. But they illustrate how the mainstream media is attempting to limit and control how much the public can contribute to its journalism. These studies suggest that as far as journalists and editors are concerned, the people formerly known as the audience is still known as the audience.

The space for the audience to participate in journalism is, by and large, clearly delineated. The public can send in their news tips, photos and videos, but the journalist retains a traditional gatekeeper role, deciding what is newsworthy and what isn't. There is little room for the public to be involved in the actual making of the news -- in deciding whom to interview, how to frame the story and how to produce it. Once the story is complete and published, the audience can freely comment on the final product.

An international study published in Journalism Practice concluded mainstream media is eager to open comments and post-publication discussion to the public, as this fits in with their definition of the audience as audience. But forms of pro-am or networked journalism are rare.

Online journalism is still in its infancy and it will take time for journalistic attitudes to change. But there are very few signs that news organizations are reinventing their relationship with the audience and tapping into the participatory potential of the web to reimagine journalism.

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.

MediaShiftThis article was originally published on PBS Mediashift. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

Comments

Currently, the most important role for citizen journalism is in social activism. Commenting about mainstream news reports and collecting new information is a powerful combination and an effective strategy because it reminds news publishers they have to be more representative of the community, and less so of their advertisers. Today, when news companies mislead their audience, citizen journalists immediately challenge it in real time. Mainstream news media companies find it incredibly difficult to manage comment sections because comments often expose the news industries’ secretive advertising or politically influenced business model. Consequently, most traditional news companies heavily moderate (a polite word for gag) comments. The cost of moderation is driven to unmanageable levels because publishers are forced to invest so much time obscuring or defending hidden allegiance. I participated in Assignment Zero in early 2007. It was headed by Jay Rosen of NYU and co-funded by WIRED.com, and the first in depth partnership between pro and amateur journalists. http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2007/07/view_from_crowds Many pros thought AZ was a failed news media experiment, but those of us on the front lines as citizen journalists thought it worked well because it revealed partisanship that for the most part is hidden to the public. Plus, it proved beyond a doubt citizen journalists were capable of digging out a story. The irony was that the pros actually got in the way. For the AZ project I interviewed Debbie Kornmiller from the Arizona Star - the first newspaper to experiment with a comment section way back in 1998. I also interviewed Michael Tippett from NowPublic. These two pioneering companies are at opposite ends of the spectrum regarding how they view their respective audiences. The Arizona Star is controlling, like most newspapers, and NowPublic uses a more transparent concept. The results are telling - only two years after the AZ project, traditional newspapers are going bankrupt at alarming rates, each closure a mini paradigm shift, and CJ companies like NP are charging forward at breakneck speed. As you illustrate above Alfred, mainstream news media is currently in a primarily defensive mode, and there is no reason to think anything will change anytime soon. You can’t win the game on defense alone. Eventually you have to lead a charge and run with the ball. Paywalls are not the answer. Major change regarding how we receive news will come as a combination of relatively uneven transitions, and at junctures spurred on by historical events that push reporting bounds to its limit predicated on the scientific theory of chaos whereas a series of paradigm shifts will take journalism to a new level at an exponentially increasing rate. News distribution is quickly becoming nonlinear – or fractured. Think of it like the change in energy that occurs when water reaches boiling point and immediately alters its form to steam. It took ten minutes to heat the water to one degree below boiling, and in that state water was still liquid, but in a nanosecond the molecular structure changes from a liquid to a gas. At 99.9 degrees centigrade it’s still liquid, but when it hits 100c it explodes into raw energy. It’s important to distinguish the difference between journalism and news publishing. Traditional news publishing as we know it is drowning in hot water, but journalism is evolving to a better form, more democratic, and harder to contain. It’s incredibly difficult if not impossible to impact a headless corporation, but a journalist, the human being behind the pen, usually has a personal sense of integrity, an attribute they cannot afford to tarnish. The secret is to separate them from the herd and make them answer directly to their audience without the corporate buffer. Force them to be accountable. A citizen journalism tool like “adopt-a-reporter” is incredibly powerful because it challenges the individual, and puts pressure on the journalist to put pressure on his or her employer - the publisher. Let the journalist do the heavy lifting. I’ve had significant success over the last few years putting journalists in the Vancouver region under the microscope regarding their misleading coverage of the 2010 Olympics. Since 2003 I have used adopt-a-reporter strategies to reverse engineer biased news stories about the Olympics, which were generated by news companies that are partners with the IOC. Unfortunately, it is still legal for news companies to partner with their advertisers, but because of high profile events like the 2010 Olympics, which are partially funded by tax dollars, residents in Vancouver and Whistler are becoming acutely aware the alliance is not ethical or healthy for our region or country. Vancouver is currently experiencing a micro news paradigm shift. Each time the “audience” understands more clearly that they have a vested interest in the “truthfulness of reporting” they naturally put pressure on publishers to tell the truth and not spin advertorial on behalf of their advertisers. The smarter the audience, the more they break away and fracture, which means it is harder for news companies to reach the critical mass they need to sway society. Soon, all that will be left consuming mainstream news will be the gullible and naive. Those, who in the past provided critical debate, will have spun off to other news sources. The world witnessed extremely biased reporting in Beijing regarding the 2008 Olympics, and it is now also occurring in Vancouver, except at a much more elevated rate. In Beijing we heard about it in real time, but today, well it’s still four months to the 2010 Olympics and you’re reading this article. Vancouver is well ahead of the curve and the pace is growing exponentially. Without doubt, by the time the Olympics hits London in 2012 news journalism will have a new face. It is feasible that events like the 2010 Olympics could push the news industry over another edge similar to the shift regarding “weapons of mass destruction reporting,” but if it doesn’t occur in Canada in 2010, it will surely happen by 2012 in London. Activism in the name of truthful reporting is already having tremendous impact. Journalism students with integrity have nothing to fear, but for everyone else, rest assured there is a citizen journalist with social media sensibilities and an adopt-a-reporter attitude waiting to challenge every pixel you publish.

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