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Gatewatching and Citizen Journalism

Examining the Relationship between Political Bloggers and the Mainstream Media

The next speaker at AoIR 2010 is my brilliant PhD student Tim Highfield, whose interest is in what contribution blogging (by a wide variety of bloggers concerned with politics, the news, current events, and the reflection of such topics in specific fields of interest) makes to the overall mediasphere. Such bloggers may have a variety of points of focus, and while the ‘informing’ role of blogs has been stressed in the literature, this may not be their only function.

There is also an underlying question of how bloggers and journalists interrelate with one another – whether they are complementary to one another, whether the wider blogosphere provides a broader background discussion to mainstream media coverage, whether bloggers can act as gatewatchers highlighting and critiquing specific themes in the media. This positions bloggers as a second tier of the media, in the way that Herbert Gans foresaw such a second tier that feeds on and reanalyses first-tier media coverage. Against this stands the sort of rhetoric around blogs as a mere echo chamber which Andrew Keen has built his career around. There is some indication that blogs link to mainstream media content more than to other blogs – as a source of information, to critique the content, or to refer to specific sections on the mainstream media page (such as comments), too.

Twitter-Based Coverage of the Olympic Games

The next speaker at ECREA 2010 starts with Jennifer Jones, whose focus is also on Twitter: she was an embedded journalist at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. There is a significant historical connection between the Olympic Games and technology, and new media have been especially prominent in recent years; there has been substantial growth especially in alternative media coverage (by non-accredited journalists and others). In Sydney, there even was an alternative media centre for the Olympics.

Independent media were prominent in Vancouver, too – people set up their own media centres, and printed their own unauthorised media passes, which were eventually tacitly accepted as valid media passes. The more people printed their own passes, the more ‘official’ they became. A number of Twitter lists (official, as well as fan-curated or adapted) were set up to aggregate the various alternative journalists covering the events.

Comparing User Participation Functionality in Flemish and German Newspaper Sites

The final speakers in this very engaging morning session at ECREA 2010 are Jeroen de Keyser and Annika Sehl, presenting a comparison of German and Flemish efforts to encourage public participation in the news media. To begin with, there clearly are increases in the online activities of ‘ordinary’ people, for example through blogs, social networking, and citizen journalism; some traditional media offer similar tools to also encourage participatory journalism activities. Such participation may take place at various stages of the journalistic process (input, output, commentary), and tools which enable participation at different stages are differently popular amongst journalists; there still is relatively limited conversation of journalists with the public overall.

The present study examined the current situation in Flanders and Germany, then. In 2008 and 2010, it analysed the participatory tools available on journalism Websites to examine the structural characteristics of audience participation, comparing eight national newspaper Websites each in Flanders and Germany.

Expanding Journalism Theories to Address User Participation

The next speaker in this session at ECREA 2010 is Mirjam Gollmitzer, whose interest is in audience participation in journalism. Such participation can take any number of different forms, of course – from commenting to the creation of whole new articles and other forms of content. Such types of participation can be conceptualised in relation to the degree of audience control over content, can be categorised into different forms of interaction and creation of content, and can be evaluated with reference to the overall visibility of audience contributions, for example.

What is interest here is what happens when such typologies enter into a dialogue with various established journalism theories – Bourdieu’s field theory, which examines the media as a field with its own structures and institutions; Habermas’s public sphere theory which establishes an ideal of public communication and political debate; and Shoemaker & Reese’s hierarchy of influences, which postulates concentric circles of influence extending from the media content at the centre through journalists, their routines, organisations, and extra-media influences, to ideology as the wider background. The impact of the audiences could be mapped at every level here, for example.

Mainstream Media Use of Amateur Footage during the Iran Election Aftermath

The next speaker in this ECREA 2010 session is Mervi Pantti, whose interest is in the role of amateur images in the Iran election crisis. This was a key moment for using citizen-created content in mainstream news coverage, and such images became a focal point for the public response to the election aftermath. Such images were also very difficult to verify, however, raising questions for the journalistic process. Mervi examined the coverage of these protests by CNN, BBC One, and the Finnish broadcaster YLE.

Citizen-provided images are used to support the journalistic mediator’s claims about the truth of the event; they are valued as evidence of the events, and provide immediacy and a heightened reality effect. At the same time, they also present a risk to the journalist’s trustworthiness, especially if there is confusion about the origin of these images. Additionally, there are questions of responsibility here – some of the images show scenes which journalists themselves would not have covered or shown, for ethical reasons; amateur footage of violence, for example, can be used as an excuse from standard journalistic ethics. Transparency is the new strategic ritual in journalistic justifications in this context; it serves as a means of letting the audience know where these images come from.

Understanding Media Watchdog Blogs

The second speaker in this session at ECREA 2010 is Tobias Eberwein, whose interest is in media watchdog blogs. This is part of a larger pan-European/Arab research project, MediaACT (media accountability and transparency), which is engaging in comparative research across 13 nations.

Media accountability means a number of things, but can be summed up as any non-state means of making media responsible to the public. This may include press councils, ombudspersons, media journalism, blogs, social network commentary, entertainment formats (like news critique shows), and others; some of these are institutionalised (and some of those are facing various institutional crises), while some operate from the grassroots but nonetheless can have significant impact.

Surveying Online Political Participation in the Netherlands

The last day at ECREA 2010 starts with a paper by Tom Bakker, whose interest is in mapping participation in citizen media activities in the Netherlands. He notes that participation in social media still appears to be growing strongly overall – and these shifts in the media ecology necessarily bring about some significant changes. The potential for such change has been highlighted for journalism (gatekeeping is said to be declining, agenda setting, news values, standards, and ethics are shifting, and diversity is increasing), as well as for the wider public sphere (thought to be more inclusive, active, deliberative, with more political discourse that is more representative of public opinion).

The present study tested this in a large-scale study in the Netherlands. It surveyed some 2130 people over 13 years of age during December 2009. One question asked in this context was whether people were reading comments: some 55% never did, the rest read them at various levels of intensity. 75% never read political comments, 83% never posted comments, and 94% never posted political comments online.

Difficulties in Sustaining Hyperlocal News

The final speaker in this ECREA 2010 panel is Angela Phillips, who highlights the disappearance of local news; this is a significant challenge to democracy, as it makes it more difficult for citizens to participate in democratic processes in an informed fashion. She highlights hyperlocal blogs as a potential solution here, but these sites are in the main run by enthusiasts without any financial base, and this means that their quality and reach remain limited.

Finding hyperlocal news information is difficult: we don’t know what we need to know; there is no obvious equivalent to a front page of newspaper poster; there is no obvious equivalent to a news bulletin; and there are homogenising effects of online search. So, the hyperlocal sites which do exist could be seen as speaking only to a small elite of the already converted.

The Trouble with the Fourth Estate

I spoke at an event organised by the Queensland Chapter of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group last night, in the Queensland Parliamentary Annexe – alongside Democrats leader turned Greens candidate Andrew Bartlett, On Line Opinion founder Graham Young, and Courier-Mail political journalist Craig Johnstone.

The theme of the evening was ‘whether bloggers are the new fourth estate’ – and here’s what  had to say (a bit of a rant, as is pretty much unavoidable after the election campaign we’ve had):

Use of Citizen Sources during the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

The next speaker at ANZCA 2010 is Serene Tng, whose interest is in the influence of citizen journalism on journalistic reporting; her case study are the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Citizen reporting is increasingly important in such major news events; this is social media in action. Serene examined the coverage of the attacks across four major international newspapers, in order to examine how citizen reporting affects the traditional dominance of standard institutional sources.

The role of the media is fundamental in any terrorist acts: the media could be seen as promoting the terrorist cause by reporting acts of terror, but government sources tend to dominate in the reporting and framing of such events; especially in breaking news, however, government sources are often backgrounded in favour of voices from the scene, and this may affect how stories are framed at such times.


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