Alfred HermidaMainstream media outlets are happy to publish some types of citizen-generated content, but, as BBC veteran and current University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida writes, the doors are still closed to citizens wanting to play a meaningful role in setting the news agenda.

By
Alfred Hermida

Alfred HermidaCBC Newsworld has a daily election show called Your Turn, aimed at giving Canadians a “chance to talk about the election issues that matter to you.” The Globe and Mail website wants your candid shots from the campaign trail to publish online, while The National Post is asking for readers’ questions to pose to the party leaders. It seems like every major news organization wants your photos, videos and comments about the federal elections.

These are all examples of what has come to be known by the unwieldy term user-generated content (UGC). It is a catch-all term to describe the public’s ability to create, publish and share their own content online, be it through their own blogs or sharing services like Flickr and YouTube. The emergence of a digital culture in which ordinary people participate in the creation and distribution of content presents a challenge to a mainstream media used to being the main channel for the flow of news and information. As a result, the media is exploring ways of integrating material from amateurs with content by professional journalists.

I have been studying this phenomenon as an academic for more than two years, having been involved in some of the early UGC initiatives during my nine years as a news editor at the BBC News website. It is an emerging field of study for researchers like me who are interested in the impact of digital communication technologies on journalism. I recently worked with my colleague, Neil Thurman at City University, London, on a study looking at how the British press was responding to the emergence of UGC.

Neil started work on this area in 2004 and found that few newspapers provided ways for the public to contribute. Where readers could contribute, editing or pre-moderation were the norm. In this sense, the media were retaining a traditional gate-keeping role, with journalists acting as message filters. Editors expressed a cautious attitude towards UGC, worried about the ways amateur content challenged journalism’s professional norms.

We worked on a follow-up study in 2006 and the research paper, called “A Clash of Cultures: The integration of user-generated content within professional journalistic frameworks at British newspaper websites” was published in the October 2008 issue of Journalism Practice. It revealed a big expansion in opportunities for readers to be involved, with many sites offering the ability to comment on stories or inviting the public to “Have Your Say.”

But newspapers were still retaining a traditional gate-keeping role. Moderation and/or registration remained the norm as editors’ concerns over reputation, trust and legal liabilities persisted. This said, the study showed a greater openness among editors. One described user media as a “phenomenon you can’t ignore”, another said they “firmly believed in the great conversation” and one editor explained he was “very interested in unlocking” information from his “very knowledgeable” readers.

There were hidden agendas in news sites’ decisions to open up to readers. Self-interest emerged as a strong motivator. Some editors were fearful of being “left behind” and there was also worry that, if they didn’t give their staff a “piece of property on the Internet”, journalists might develop a community of readers by blogging elsewhere. Editors were still worried about the quality of submissions from the public and were looking for the right kind of user-generated content that fitted their brand’s values.

Since this is a rapidly developing field, Neil and I looked again at this area in May of this year. This study, due to be published in a forthcoming book, Web Journalism, showed a continuing expansion in user-generated content initiatives. Perhaps surprisingly, there was also evidence of a more relaxed attitude to moderation. Despite ongoing concerns, the websites of three national newspapers all currently publish readers’ comments without registration or pre-moderation.

The shift away from moderation might be a result of the increase in opportunities readers have to participate. With more choice, news websites may be finding that readers are less likely to take part if they encounter barriers to participation, like registration, or if they don’t get the immediate, positive feedback instant publication gives.

Although there has been an increase in opportunities for readers to contribute over the three years of the work in this area, there are few ways for readers to set the agenda. The British press has opened its doors to the public, but journalists and editors remain firmly in control as gate-keepers. As a result, newspapers are creating more of an architecture of publication for material from the audience, rather than an architecture of participation. What this means is the mainstream media is creating formats to publish contributions from readers after a journalist has written the story, rather than allowing these non-professionals to take an active part in the news process, such as in the selection, treatment and editing of stories.

“A Clash of Cultures: The integration of user-generated content within professional journalistic frameworks at British newspaper websites” is available (by subscription) in Journalism Practice, October 2008

A pre-publication version of the paper is available here.

Alfred Hermida is an assistant professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. He blogs at www.reportr.net

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