Participatory journalism presentation at ISOJ 2011

Since I was on the last research panel at ISOJ, I was not able to blog about the strong papers by my fellow presenters. Fortunately, the ISOJ student team wrote a short wrap up.

But I wanted to share the slides and text of my paper presentation for those who weren’t about to make the conference. The paper is also available as PDF.

The Active Recipient

Thank you. It is a pleasure to take part in the symposium for another year.

This paper forms part of an international project to study adoption of participatory journalism.  It draws on data from our forthcoming book, Participatory Journalism.

Calls for the public to participate in some shape or form in journalism have become almost standard on news websites. But research has shown that journalists are reluctant to allow audiences any kind of agency.

As it is late in the day, I wanted to play a video from Mitchell and Webb that offers a satirical take on how journalists have adopted participatory journalism.

That’s the literature review done.

This study draws on the perspectives of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey on the role of the media to frame how professional journalists view participatory journalism.

For Lippmann, modern society had become too complex for the public to understand.  The function of the journalist, then, was to “evaluate the policies of government and present well-informed conclusions about these key debates to the public.”

Dewey argued that the public was capable of rational thought and decision-making. The role of journalism, then, was is to engage and educate the public in the key policy issues, enabling them to participate in the democratic discourse.

Arguable Lippmann’s view of journalism is the dominant kind.

Early newspapers – such as Public Occurences, left a blank page for readers to add their news and comments.

But as newspapers became more professional products, editorial content became authored by professionals – the journalists.

In terms of participatory journalism, we wanted to find out if:

  • journalists see themselves as an elite group who should evaluate and present analysis to a spectator public, or
  • journalists believe they should provide ways for citizens to interact and participate in the news in a meaningful fashion

For the study we did semi-structured interviews with more than 60 news professionals drawn from about two dozen leading national newspapers.  The interviews were based on a common list of questions and conducted in 2007 and 2008 by a team of researchers.  The subjects drawn from 10 countries: Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

While participatory tools have evolved since the fieldwork was conducted, it remains important to consider how journalists view and frame the audience.

We broke down the journalistic process into five stages of news production as we wanted to investigate to what extent audiences had the ability to contribute and influence the making of the news.

The access/observation stage was the primary way for users to contribute: submitting text or audio-visual material – Particular interest in photos and video of breaking news.

By and large, journalists were extending established newsgathering practices to the web, seeing the user as a source of material that journalists were unable to provide themselves.

The journalists we interviewed placed greater value on soliciting audience contributions on specific stories or issues, rather than on unsolicited story ideas.

There were no options at the selection/filtering stage where what is news is decided.

We found a reluctance of editors to give users any agency over the news. None of the newspapers offered any meaningful opportunities to influence what makes the news.

There were some opportunities for users to write the news at the processing/editing stage but within clearly prescribed formats.

Citizen stories were selected and edited by journalists for publication on the website. There tended to be found more in lifestyle areas than hard news.

A handful of newspapers in Croatia, France, Spain, the UK and the USA provided a hosted space for users to create and publish their own content. These spaces for unfiltered and unedited material were kept separate from the content produced by professional journalists.

At the distribution stage, most newspaper websites created user-driven story rankings based on the most-read or most-emailed stories. And we found editors were grappling with the growth of social networks as mechanisms for the distribution of stories.

But the hierarchy of stories on a homepage was firmly in the hands of editors. They  expressed concerns about balancing the perceived need to maintain control over the hierarchy and distribution of news, while at the same time allowing users greater agency.

Editors were most comfortable with opening up the final stage, interpretation. The most common mechanism for interpretation was comments on stories.

Despite widespread adoption among newspapers, our interviewees expressed mixed feelings about the worth of some of the material posted.

Some were concerned over the quality of the comments submitted by readers.

But a small number of editors talk of these spaces for interpretation as ways of accomplishing deliberative ideals.

These saw comments and other spaces for interpretation as an extension of the traditional role of the newspaper in sparking a national conversation.

One editor even spoke of the potential to create a platform that is “an expression of democracy, and in my view is bringing forward society.”

Our study suggests that journalists see audiences as what we call “active recipients” of news – somewhere between passive receivers and active creators of content.

Users are expected to act when news happens and react when it is reported and published.

As “active recipients”, audiences are framed

  • As idea generators and observers of newsworthy events at the start of the journalistic process
  • Then in an interpretive role as commentators who reflect upon the material that has been produced.

We suggest that the way participatory journalism has been adopted and implemented falls somewhere between Lippmann’s and Dewey’s view of the media.

There are few indications journalism is becoming itself a more democratic process itself.

But newspapers were providing greater opportunities for audiences to engage in the public discourse.

Indeed, some journalists are intrigued by the possibilities of participatory journalism to enable more voices to be heard, and perhaps even fulfill deliberative ideals in a democratic society.

Thank you.

(Index photo by Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, University of Texas at Austin).