April 26, 2007

A skeptical perspective on participatory journalism

Two weeks ago, in the blooming spring of Tampere, in Finland, I participated in an International Seminar entitled "Towards Participatory Journalism". The line-up was very exciting, and hopefully a starting point for joint research projects: Jane Singer, currently at U Lancashire, Thorsten Quandt, Ludwig-Maximiliaans U in Munich, Steve Paulussen, U Ghent [the three of them in the picture, discussing in the woods of Pyyniki], Mark Deuze, on a videoconference from U Indiana, and Esa Sirkkunen and Ari Heinonen from U Tampere. You may want to browse the presentations yourself, but let me summarize the rather skeptical perspective that the different presenters shared in very complementary contributions.

Participatory journalism seems theoretically very attractive as a way to improve journalism public service role (or to get back to it, it could be argued), but in practice participatory projects are not easy to develop nor are they guaranteed per se to improve quality of journalism and democracy.

Participatory journalism requires changes in journalists’ attitudes and newsrooms internal organization to be effective, which Steve Paulussen demonstrated to be very challenging; at the same time, it may not foster the participation of the voiceless, it might be restricted to local and worthless stories (at least in terms of democratic collective interest relevance) and media companies may just use it to cut jobs. Real risks that the ideal has when put into practice.

Empirical and anecdotal data suggest that journalists resist to embrace participatory journalism or, at least, to let it change their professional principles. Therefore, participatory projects being developed nowadays may not be effective in achieving the benefits that theoretical approaches to participatory journalism suggest (more responsive and responsible journalists, more civic engagement of citizens, more transparency of the news production process, more power of citizens in defining the news agenda…).

In online journalism, immediacy is the priority and journalists seem have a diminished responsibility on their work (few bylines, mostly editing wires), as Thorsten Quandt pointed out. In citizen media cases, Mark Deuze highlighted that the profile of users is often the wealthy families rooted in their communities, those who are already well served by professional media. Both ends don’t seem to meet in what would be the idealistic intentions of participatory journalism proponents.

Jane Singer defended that journalists need to redefine the grounding for their ethical standards, and I proposed they should have new responsibilities in the new participatory context. They will still be needed, in order to encourage and enhance active audience contributions and reach out for what the audience does not cover, which can actually be the most crucial stories for social debates.

The challenge is detecting what are the factors and strategies that may foster participation that contributes to improve journalism and the overall democratic debate.