May 26, 2008

Next steps for audience participation research

The ICA conference in Montréal was a very nice opportunity to move on in the debate on the research of participatory journalism. I chaired a panel that outlined the different approaches to date:

  • The study of the attitudes and strategies of mainstream online media
  • The exploration of the newsmaking routines of citizen reporters in comparison to those of professionals
Alfred Hermida, who participated in the panel, summarizes nicely the findings of two of the studies presented there: British online editors' attitudes and Israeli citizen reporters' routines. In the discussion, two research questions were identified as next steps to take:
  • What are journalists offering back to the audience that participates?
  • Who are the citizens that participate and what are their motivations?
The first question has a normative implication: if participatory journalism is to be relevant at all to improve the role of media as catalyzers of a more engaged citizenry, then journalists should get involved in the participation processes. If business rationales and legal cautions prevent this, "participatory journalism" may need to be renamed into "audience publication architectures", as proposed by Hermida: spaces where user-generated content is published in a very controlled and limited environment completely separated from professional newsmaking processes and products.

The second question may shed some light into the value of participatory journalism for the other side of the equation, the citizens. Knowing why do they participate will help to see if they have any aspirations of changing mainstream journalism... or just become part of it.

The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication just published an article (PDF) in which I try to contribute some theoretical and historical context to this debate. I describe "interactivity" as a powerful myth that has just been renovated by the discourses on "participatory journalism". Online journalists feel compelled to incorporate the myth into their products, but their professional culture and organizational constraints push the actual developments out of the core routines of online newsrooms.