Mainstream Media Miss the Point of Participatory Journalism

    by Alfred Hermida
    September 15, 2009
    Attendees gather at the Future of Journalism conference

    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.

    There are very few signs that news organizations are reinventing their relationship with the audience and tapping into the participatory potential of the web.

    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.

    Jane Singer

    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.

    Tagged: comments future of journalism conference participatory journalism research user-generated content
    • I wish I could have attended this conference. Journalism is in such an interesting position right now.

      As a media historian, I view the current changes from that perspective. There have been other media revolutions (the Penny Press, for example) that changed the way the industry operated.

      The press hasn’t always been “professional,” either. Take the 18th century — anyone who could afford to print some pamphlets got their point of view published for public consumption. The same thing is happening today with the web.

    • Great post. Thanks. I’m a recovering MSM journalist, now helping launch a new non-profit news venture covering western North America’s environment, public health and social-justices issues at http://www.invw.org. We’re dying to get into the pro-am model. Do you have some suggestions for how we might do this? Thanks again for this post.

    • Mallory Kydd

      Great post. I’ve been to a conference like the one you went to in this article. Although they may have covered the same topic, you get different perspectives on what is currently happening to journalism. Which is why I like to keep myself active on this topic. As Butler Cain said, there is going to be a new “invention” that was destined to come along to change journalism. It’s so exciting to be a student when this is happening.

    • These results don’t seem like much of a surprise, given how slow the MSM has been to fully embrace Web 2.0 technology. They could easily harness it as a tool, not only to get the “audience” more involved, but allow users to participate in the journalistic process. Instead, they choose to ignore such prospects and stifle participatory journalism.

    • Robert

      For my MA dissertation in Journalism last year, I focused, among other things, on the role of gatekeepers that MSM keeps having in the UK, and the US, even if not to the same extent.

      I agree that this role is still strongly felt and held by organizations like the BBC, who seem to see common people not as essential parts of the process of making news, but just end-users of information that has been produced and authored outside their control. It’s the classic top-down approach.

      However, we should also keep into account the element of the credibility of the press in Britain and America.

      It’s my view that if people trust their media, then they will not look for other sources of information, let alone alternative channels like citizen journalism websites and contributions.

      This could have as a consequence the reinforcement of the gatekeeping role of the mainstream media, and the persuasion that, as long as they have the support of the public, they are still the only source entitled to tell people what happens in the world.

      At the same time, citizen journalism, in my opinion, hasn’t been able to build acceptable standards of credibility and coherent business models able to compete with MSM in gaining the favor of the public. And of course it seems it hasn’t been encouraged by the “official” media industry.

      It did not happen in the US (where people tend to trust their own media less than in Britain, and where there is not a public service comparable to the BBC in terms of public role) nor in the UK.

      Some projects and tentatives have been carried out in the US, like Groundreport, but in the UK, besides one noticeable exception, there is little else. Still noticeable is OhmyNews in South Korea.

      My conclusion, that is of course open to debate, would be that as long as citizen journalism, as an alternative mode of information and approach to news making, does not acquire a sufficient level of credibility, the MSM will still be entitled to deem itself the only mediator between what happens in the world and the public, therefore reinforcing the gatekeeping role it has traditionally had.

    • David Perkins

      I missed the part of your argument where you say, “And pro-am collaboration produces really good journalism. Witness X,Y and Z.” Please refer me to where that information can be found.

    • I have to wonder for which segment of the population MSM percieve themselves as the “gatekeepers”, and, also, the demographics of those who are choosing to go to legacy media outlets when it comes to exercising their UGC freedoms.

      This looks like an incredible conference and this blog post makes me wonder not so much about the motives of the legacy news media (why wouldn’t they perceive themselves as gatekeepers?) but, rather, the future of UGC. I’d strongly agree with Robert’s point that completely UGC sites have yet to come into their own in terms of being a widely accepted, financially stable, long-term platform for information exchange. Yet, it seems that time and time again these user-drive sources–independent forums still seem to be a step ahead in ingenuity (even with a maximum of just a few words). CNN and MSNBC may Twitter, but its the outlets doing the leg work, not so much Twitter going to CNN (although i must benefit from the free publicity).

      Returning to the question of the future… I would be interested to see what specifically the upcoming generation–Gen Y/Millennial–relies upon. This question is taking into account that teenagers are creating content almost twice as often as adults–and that’s citing relatively ancient Pew research from 2006. Also, not to mention that the sitting U.S. President captured part of that new voting population two years later, by bypassing MSM and “going straight to them”. Pew did some pretty interesting additonal research on the younger people and the way they get their news earlier this year. I’d like to say that the ball isn’t necessarily in MSM’s court, or at least not for long. And, citing the marriage (and diminishing creativity) of Myspace and News Corp, the generation isn’t as unaware as one could assume to MSM business moves. News Corp’s censorship and backtracking is one case in point.

      It would be great to hear some more feedback on generational use-

    • To focus in on one part of this post, I wanted to respond to the idea of looking for newsworthy material in comments on stories. Why would anyone look for news there? The idea of having comments is to be able to respond to the story, not to propose a new one.

      Although the traditional journalist views comments as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, comments could be much more than that, as witnessed by the comments above! If we look at news stories as a launching point for conversations among a community about important matters, policy indications and public opinion are just two of the potential yields from comments. And why do comments increase loyalty? Because they start a conversation about viewpoints on the news.

      The problems of abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation are definitely ones to keep in mind. But I feel like the problem of a lack of contributions is related to many factors, and that could be a study in and of itself. I’d like to see an investigation of the factors involved, which I’d guess include not having enough time/interest to comment, not being in the habit, audience composition (younger people more likely to comment on certain stories, etc), and possibly a sense that the comments aren’t read or listened to. How can we close the loop one more time, from story to comment to ACTION/RESULT?

    • Whether news organisations like it or not, participatory journalism is here to stay. WHat it will give us is a much wider scope of all types of news. For too long too many news organisations have taken the same agency stories or recycled the same press releases. This won’t do any more.

    • 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 naïve. 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.

    • After reading this article, I just HAD to respond.

      I work for the Sacramento Press which just celebrated its one year anniversary.

      Sacramentopress.com is a hyperlocal online newspaper where anyone can post and comment on our site. We really value our community and see that they are often the ones who can tell stories best because they witness them firsthand.

      We have a small paid editorial staff but we now have over 500 community contributors (people who have written articles on our site) and almost 3,000 users (people who comment on the site).

      We offer free workshops to teach people about journalism. Past workshops include interviewing techniques, intro to journalism, bias in journalism, journalism ethics, public affairs journalism, AP Style, as well as social media workshops on Twitter, Facebook, and so on.

      We also offer free copy editing to the community so they can have their work edited before they post it.

      There is no gatekeeper before a community member posts a story. Writing and article and publishing it are done solely by the community.

      We do take down articles if they are offensive, spammy, or otherwise violate our terms of use and we work with that writer to post something that is appropriate for our site.

      We encourage conversations between the city PIO’s, the mayor of Sacramento, and people from all walks of life. The comment section is often an area where new information is added and ideas for follow-up stories are generated.

      I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of publications, online ones included, but I wanted to bring your attention to our site after reading your article to prove that some people are in fact encouraging participatory journalism.

    • Dessalew

      this desciption is very good.however,i want a very short and precise note on the topic ‘the role of mainstream media in disaster prevention’
      thank you for your help
      from ethiopia

    • Dessalew

      please, send anote on the topic ‘the role of the mainstream media in disaster prevention’

      thank you in advance

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