Value of citizen journalism
Text messages and e-mails from our audiences have brought a valuable additional aspect to our journalism. But how much attention should we pay to people who care strongly enough about an issue to send a message? They might either be typical of a wide part of the audience or perhaps just a tiny vocal minority.
In a speech I gave earlier today at the University of Leeds' Institute of Communications Studies, I discussed some of the issues about what is termed "user-generated content". The text of my speech is below, and I'd be interested in your thoughts about the issues.
Citizen journalism - for the 1% or the 99%?
Ten days ago, just hours after the death of Benazir Bhutto, we considered turning off the comment recommendation facility on that story on the BBC News website. It was only a fleeting suggestion but that we could consider, however briefly, freezing this important part of BBC News’ service tells you something about the power and the potential danger of the new intensity of the interaction between the contributing public, journalists and audiences. And it raises the question of how much attention and resource news organisations should devote to this rapidly burgeoning aspect of our journalism.
Let me explain more about the Bhutto response. As is usual after major stories, our team quickly put up a Have Your Say forum to get reaction to her death. As you probably know there is a facility for users to recommend comments that previous people have posted. Here are a few of the top half dozen comments, with the number of people who eventually ended up recommending the views.
"That's the way politics works with The Religion of Peace". 828
"Religion of Peace strikes again." 717
"Is this another example of the wonderful tolerance for which, or so we are constantly being told, Islam is famous?
Its time the rest of the world stopped making excuses for this barbaric, dark ages way of life and completely condemned the casual brutality continually perpetrated by so many of the religion's supporters." 565
The vehemence and the unanimity of these opinions against the Muslim religion were striking. So why did we briefly consider freezing this forum? A small part of our thinking was that in the context of the death of a significant international figure, who was herself Muslim, we thought that the weight of remarks could be offensive to some users of the BBC News website. Might some readers believe that such views as “most recommended” represented an editorial line by BBC News? I suspect not, but there was at least that danger. But our real question concerned the editorial value of the comments and how far they should influence our coverage more widely. And the answers to that were: very little and hardly at all.
The top 20 or 30 recommended posts all had variations on the theme, attacking Islam in comprehensive terms. Most of them weren’t making distinctions between different aspects of Islam, they were simply damning the religion as a whole. To be honest it was pretty boring wading through them and wouldn’t have added much to anyone’s understanding of the causes or consequences of the assassination. Buried amongst the comments however, rarely recommended by others, were insights from those who had met Benazir or knew her. And there were valuable eyewitness comments from people who were at the scene in Rawalpindi. Our team that deals with user content sifted through the chaff to find some excellent wheat.
And of course in the end we didn’t cut off that Have Your Say forum. The BBC has made a commitment to listening to the views of its audience. And I have no doubt how any attempt to down-play or disregard their comments would have been seen – as censorship and a conspiracy by the BBC to prevent their strongly held views.
Of course in one sense it is very useful to understand the strength of feeling on this issue amongst our audiences, the majority of whom as far as we could tell were from the UK. That’s something we will bear in mind in covering aspects of Islam in future. But do I believe that those views were not truly representative of the BBC’s audiences at home and abroad.
This brief recent Bhutto example throws up some pretty fundamental questions for those who argue for organisations like the BBC – the so-called “mainstream media” - to be much more responsive to audience interest and comment. Should we have given over a significant part of our website or our analysis programmes on Radio 4 to consideration of whether Islam is a religion that is inherently skewed towards violence? Or were we right to concentrate our journalism on reporting and analysing the life on Benazir, how she came to die and the political consequences? I hope that most people would agree with the choices that we made.
I begin with this salutary tale not because I wish to undermine the significance of public contribution to journalism on the BBC. We have already invested significantly in it and have plans for much more, which I will outline later. But I want to argue that the somewhat messianic and starry-eyed way in which public participation journalism is argued for needs some very careful consideration. And there are many different aspects of such journalism, with varying degrees of value.
Assessing how much effort and weight journalism based on public participation should receive is a very timely one for BBC News. Two months ago we underwent a significant re-organisation that brought old media and newer media together. And it put our efforts around public participation, what we call ‘user generated content’, centre stage.
Previously BBC News was organised around four main departments: Firstly, our newsgathering team that organises our correspondents, crews and bureaux in Britain and the world. Newsgathering largely supported the two broadcast output departments – TV News and radio News. And lastly there was a separate News Interactive department which ran our web and interactive services, but which did not have the full power to be able to call on content from our largely broadcast-focused operations.
Now newsgathering delivers for all platforms. We have abolished the three output departments, replacing them with two new multimedia departments – a multimedia newsroom that is responsible for the core of the BBC News website, our daily TV News operation (BBC One bulletins, BBC News 24, BBC World, BBC Breakfast) and our radio news summaries and bulletins. Alongside that is a multimedia programmes department with responsibility for interviews, investigation and analysis in our current affairs programming – through radio 5 Live, Newsnight, the Today programme, Panorama and so on.
Within the multimedia newsroom department, for which I have responsibility, we are now preparing a major physical re-organisation to accompany the structural changes. All of the key daily news teams in radio, TV and the web will be seated alongside each other next to the people who run the newsgathering. And close to the middle of that operation will be our User Generated Content unit. It will be right alongside the newsgathering teams that deploy our conventional journalistic resources. And the UGC team will be deploying and receiving our unconventional journalistic resources – information and opinion from the audience.
When that information is received and assessed it will be passed immediately to our journalists on any platform and will be on air on News 24, Radio 5 Live or on the site as soon as possible. The UGC team have already done a huge amount to build one of the most extensive and effective audience content handling operations in the world. But the new integration into our broadcast operation allows us to exploit this resource even more fully. The questions are, what are the limits of that exploitation, what value do audiences get from it and how much should we invest in it?
There is little doubt of the enormous value of audience-provided information and media in enhancing the coverage of news events. From the earliest days of audience-based journalism we have been astonished at the range of the BBC News website’s ability to garner news from the most obscure corners of the globe. After a mudslide in Sumatra some years ago we asked if anyone had been an eyewitness. This occasioned some mirth and scepticism in the online newsroom about whether they would ever get a response. But sure enough a user soon wrote in with graphic details. Our correspondent in Bukit Lawang.
And more famous news event examples tend to be the area of UGC that is most written about – for instance the underground pictures on July 7th, the Buncefield explosions, the Virginia Tech shootings etc. Spectacular and notorious as these are, they raise few interesting editorial dilemmas. News organisations need to make sure their audiences are aware of the ways in which they can send such information they come across as “accidental journalists”. And news organisations need to be able to handle sudden peaks in provision of such material. One of the reasons we will be situating our UGC team in the heart of the newsroom is that we will be able to supplement the team by reassigning journalists working on other tasks when there are spikes in contributions.
Less straightforward, but more editorially intriguing are the stories which are not prompted by surprise news events. Some are spontaneously generated by audience members, others through reporters following hunches and inquiring of the audience.
We can actively ask questions of our audience that can build a rapid picture of unfolding events. For instance, when the contaminated fuel incident happened a little while ago the BBC’s question on its website asking people to tell us where they bought their fuel if they had had a problem engine was the most accurate data any organisation in the country had about the locations where the problem petrol was being sold.
Last year our defence correspondent Paul Wood became aware of widespread concern within the army about the condition of barracks. By using army websites and obtaining material from soldiers’ families he obtained pictures and information that painted a devastating picture of sub-standard accommodation.
And just three days ago the potential of organised and engaged citizen journalism became clear. Contributors posting on Twitter provided an earlier picture of the Barack Obama victory in the Iowa caucuses than any professionally organised exit poll or data collection. The potential for this sort of journalistic enterprise is only just being realised.
Each of those stories would not have been possible, certainly with the speed with which they were produced, without the new technologies that allow intense interaction between journalist and audience. But it is in the area of the contested news agenda and opinions about the news agenda in which public participation raises the most interesting dilemmas.
There is no doubt that the stronger voice of the audience is having a beneficial effect on the range of stories and perspectives that journalists cover. At the BBC, the use of texts, e-mails and debate forums gives us access in real time to the views of the active members of our audience.
The BBC has previously been criticised from the right for following a politically correct, liberal agenda and from some on the left for being too remote in its interests, insufficiently attuned to bread and butter issues that affects the mass audience.
Now, within minutes of a story being discussed on air, we have an extremely rich range of responses from the audience. That gives us quotes we can use and interviewees we can put on air who have germane real life experiences. Often those experiences challenge or contradict the assumptions that news decision makers or the people who traditionally generate news might hold.
In a news world where the public can encounter a very wide range of views through the web they will rapidly turn away from public service broadcasters who fail to encompass the range of views within society. This is less of a problem for newspapers with clear perspectives or web sites that cover issues from a particular standpoint. But for broadcasters with a regulated commitment to impartiality this has proved a challenge. Our traditional model was a rather safe middle of the road, balancing neutrality. I have argued previously that this model is now outdated and that we need to embrace an idea of “radical impartiality”, that is of a much broader range of views than before. But views that are rigorously tested, but with respect for all legally expressed opinions.
This has led to a loosening of the range of expression we include. Indeed I believe that the views about Islam that I quoted earlier may well have been excluded by us few years ago. This shift has been commented on by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent when she criticised the implications of my call for radical impartiality. She wrote “When he argues the BNP or extremist Muslim campaigners can be allowed to make their case, with robust interviews ensuring ‘balance’, my blood freezes. The BBC was never a coliseum, a bloody arena for a fight to the death. For the first time ever, I resent paying the licence fee because the BBC is not fulfilling its public service role with the integrity it always had.”
Whilst I believe that it is very important to broaden the range of interviewees and contributions we have on the air, I do share some of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s worries. We cannot just take the views that we receive via e-mails and texts and let them dictate our agenda. Nor should they give us a slant around which we should orient our take on a story. At their best they are an invaluable information resource and an important corrective to group-think. They very often ask direct or apparently naïve questions that get to the heart of the subject – they can be gold dust for interviewers for instance.
But we need to be very clear about how many contributions we get, their statistical significance and the weight we should attach to them. The BBC gets an average of 10,000 e-mails or posts in a day to its Have Your Say site. That can soar on big news days. That sounds an enormous number. But up to 5 million people can come to the BBC News website on a single day. That means that fewer than 1% of our users, even on the most active days, are choosing to say something to us. What organisation – a political party, a business, a trades union – would allow its stance to be totally driven by such a small minority?
Of course a small proportion could be indicative of a wider population, but we can’t be sure. Rather than playing a numbers game to drive our agenda I instead encourage our teams to look for thoughtful or surprising views and opinions. In other words we still need to be journalistic with this material, as we would with any other source.
I remember a striking example when a government proposal was floated for the outlawing of simulated violence in sexual images. Our coverage proceeded initially on an unspoken assumption of widespread public support for this move. We soon received many comments from people who pointed out that if no-one was hurt in the creation of such images then what was the government doing banning them. For subsequent coverage we were able to include that perspective. Without this prompt from the audience I doubt that this view would have been carried on a BBC One bulletin.
But the critique from the academics and bloggers in digital media implies that the level of filtering and editorial selection that the BBC deploys should be reduced. Many of them argue that having such a strict process is counter-productive and inimical to the principles of what they call ‘citizen journalism’. That unless we change our mindset our journalism will not change sufficiently. There are a number of schools of thought within this critique. Some commentators simply claim that mainstream media such as the BBC could never embrace this form properly so we might become increasingly irrelevant. The very shrewd commentator Paul Bradshaw has written that citizen journalism takes us “from a world where members of the public needed the news industry for information, to one where they can access and produce it themselves”. And as the public can do this for themselves without help from news organizations, those news organisations may have little role unless they adopt the requisite openness.
But a more political strand of thinking insists that news organisations need to change and include this material, on the terms set by the audience, or rather by them, as campaigners. The polemicist Danny Schechter, author of The Death of Media, is one of many US bloggers who have a powerful ideological tinge to their critique. He says “there is a whole movement out there which is trying to democratise the media.” But what that democratisation means is revealed by the digital banners, calling his supporters to action on his own website. Examples include the instruction: “Tell the Media to cover the debt crisis.” And “Join MediaChannel.org and hundreds of thousands of Americans in calling on U.S. media outlets to do a better job of reporting on the war in Iraq and the anti-war movement protests against it.”
In other words, the call for democratisation is actually about getting the so-called mainstream media to adopt specific policy agendas, or lean in certain directions. This is nothing short of digital bullying. The likelihood that increasingly well-organised digital lobby groups will pervert and exploit the interactive mechanisms that news organisations have established is a strong reason for the BBC to have a high level of caution in this area. Quite often when we research stories sent to us by individual members of the public through our access systems – initiatives like Your News on BBC News 24 and the BBC One’s Six O’Clock News, for instance – we discover that apparently individual suggestions are coming from people in organised pressure groups who are targeting such audience access initiatives. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate their contributions, but it does mean that we need to be especially vigilant that we are not being hijacked. Simply orienting ourselves to the wealth of audience input is never going to be as straightforward as the propagandists of citizen journalism suggest.
Nor is it necessarily going to be of benefit to the wider audience – the other 99%. Some commentators have argued that responding to the interests of the 1% of participators could provide attract an audience far wider than those who simply want to contribute. And others have speculated that this could be the key to engaging lost news audiences or even to re-ignite public interest in political engagement. There is some research to indicate that the greater accessibility that audience interaction offers is attractive to audiences beyond those that contribute directly. And there is evidence that it encourages people to stay longer, clicking around a site.
The wider range of sources generated by audiences should improve our story gathering and the quality of what we do, but I believe that still needs to be assessed and delivered through an expert journalistic prism - at least for an organization with the particular responsibilities incumbent on the BBC. I have seen no evidence that raw audience interaction or unvarnished news direct from the audience is more attractive than professional news. In fact we put a lot of effort into helping audience contributors to make their offerings polished so they don’t look sub standard. Audience generated news is highly resource intensive.
The closely focused local campaign story that meets the needs of a small group of protesters and gives them a lot of satisfaction for having got onto the BBC may be of high value to those affected, but it may be irrelevant to the non-participative audience, the silent population. But other times it can be very helpful. Only a few days ago Radio 5 Live enterprisingly followed up on a single e-mail from a customer of the pub chain Wetherspoons who had been refused more than two alcoholic drinks when having a meal with his children. This prompted significant audience engagement, with strong views being expressed on both sides. That worked simply because it fitted with pretty traditional definitions of news. It was new information, widely relevant. Not a highly political story, but undoubtedly widely engaging. The old rules still apply.
So what are the rules and principle BBC News intends to apply to the many varieties of audience contribution to our journalism? And what priority do we attach to each of them?
We always need to ask ourselves what value for the audience as a whole does the BBC’s activity, funded by public money, generate. Many of the tools and capabilities of citizen journalism are freely available on the web. The BBC doesn’t need to supply those. We should provide Media Literacy information guiding people in how to get involved and send us their material, but we are not directly a facilitator of such involvement or campaigning. Some years ago we set up a citizen involvement initiative called variously iCan, then Action Network. We have gradually withdrawn investment from that because the level of involvement in it compared to the cost was inappropriate. The whole web is now out there for anyone with a special interest to pursue their cause easily. We have learnt from that experiment and are now pointing users to alternative ways, inside and outside the BBC, of getting their voices heard.
The general conversation on the web is freely available to all. The BBC does not have to host that either. We do have an interest in hearing the public’s views about our news coverage, so we run an editors' blog and host discussions about that – an essential part of a push towards greater accountability and openness and a way of enhancing and repairing the damaged trust in the BBC. Sometimes it can be pretty uncomfortable to own up to mistakes in real time, but we have found that making redress quickly, whatever the fallout in adverse press coverage, is better than trying to hide from audience criticism.
In terms of audience debate about the subjects we cover in the news, I believe we will need to be more relaxed about letting a wide range of views proliferate. The balance between pre-moderated and post-moderated debate may need to shift. And we may simply sometimes point audiences to other places, outside the BBC, where informed debate about topical subjects is happening. So the urge to constrain debate, as with the initial Bhutto response, needs to relax. We’re going to just have to let it go and just make hosting this material less significant for us and audiences.
Where the BBC is hosting debate we will want the information generated to be editorially valuable. Simply having sufficient resource to be able to moderate the volume of debate we now receive is an issue in itself. And the fact that we are having to apply significant resource to a facility that is contributed regularly by only a small percentage of our audiences is something we have to bear in mind. Although of course a higher proportion read forums or benefit indirectly from how it feeds into our journalism. So we may have to loosen our grip and be less worried about the range of views expressed, with very clear labeling about the BBC’s editorial non-endorsement of such content. But there are obvious risks.
We need to be able to extract real editorial value from such contributions more easily. We are exploring as many technological solutions as we can for filtering the content, looking for intelligent software that can help journalists find the nuggets and ways in which the audience itself can help us to cope with the volume and sift it.
If we can free up effort from simply processing large volumes of opinion and obtain extra investment, our intention will be to enhance our efforts in getting real journalistic value out of this material. It can clearly widen our agenda and our knowledge of what is happening. It can also enhance the level of expertise from members of the public that is present in our journalism and on our airwaves. Members of the audience who really know what they are talking about play a vital role in keeping our journalism up to the mark.
And the extra effort we intend to put into this level of added-value journalism will also involve going out proactively to look for such material. Just waiting for audiences to contact the BBC is in itself distorting. Not everyone uses BBC News and those who take the trouble to contact us may not be representative. Our interactive journalists already have a very involved relationship with the blogosphere in their relevant area of expertise. In broadcast areas such interest has been weak up to now but is growing – for instance through imaginative interactive initiatives on programmes like Newsnight and PM. A deep understanding of and involvement in the blog world should now be a requirement for all of our journalists.
As a news organisation we aspire to universal reach as we are paid for by almost everyone. We need to be aware that the bulk of the people who pay the licence fee are always likely to be non-participative so our activities in handling audience content and harvesting the best material from the web must generate editorial value for the non-participators as well as the participators. We can and will provide an even better and more engaged service for the participative 1%. But, as we are paid for by everyone, our priority cannot be the 1% but must be the 100%.
Update, 02:00PM, 8 Jan: This is the actual version of the speech I gave in Leeds, so varies slightly from the one previously posted here on the blog.