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. For our book, Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers, we wanted to investigate how far journalists were relaxing their control on the news.
For the study we did semi-structured interviews with more than 60 news professionals drawn from about two dozen leading national newspapers in 10 countries: Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The fieldwork was conducted in 2007 and 2008 by a team of researchers.
To accommodate user participation in the news space, journalists have had to make practical shifts, such as the organisation of the newsroom and the job descriptions of journalists as well as conceptual shifts in how journalists see themselves and the audience.
We found the creation of new newsroom jobs such as community manager or comment moderator to handle material from the public. But there was little consensus on best practices. As an online editor from France put it: “Obviously, a journalist shouldn’t be spending half his time reading comments on his stories, or we would never get through it.”
Partly this was due to divergent views on the value of participatory journalism. We identified two main approaches. Participatory journalism was either seen as a separate space, relatively uncontrolled by journalists, where users could ‘play’, or as a more closely monitored user space that be mined for news tips, sources or raw material.
“In the end, readers and the content are just another source, a source that had been neglected,” said an online journalist from Spain, reflecting the views of many.
However, journalists are extremely concerned about the unverified submissions or potentially libelous content. “A newspaper publisher is responsible for everything that it publishes, including the postings that come from the various whackjobs in society,” said an online editor from Canada.
However, our interviews suggested participatory journalism is spurring changes in some journalists’ self-perceptions. We identified three role categories:
- Conventional: Preservation of traditional boundaries between professionals and users.
- Dialogical: Creation of news as a joint or collaborative project.
- Ambivalent: Soul-searching about what journalists and users do, might do or should do.
Participatory journalism is often lauded for its ability to transform citizens from passive recipients of news content to active creators of it. But we found the reality is a bit less dramatic. We suggest that journalists see the audience as ‘active recipients’ of the news. Citizens are expected to act when news happens, by taking a photo or emailing in a news tip, and then react by commenting.
Users are seen as idea generators and news sensors at the start of the journalistic process and then in an interpretive role as commentators who reflect upon the material that has been produced by the journalist. The crucial and central processes of deciding what news is and how to cover and present it remains almost entirely under the journalist’s control.
Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers by Jane B. Singer, Alfred Hermida, David Domingo, Ari Heinonen, Steve Paulussen, Thorsten Quandt, Zvi Reich, Marina Vujnovic, is published by Wiley-Blackwell. More at: Participatory Journalism.