Participatory Journalism: What do you think that means?

Citizen journalism, public journalism, grassroots journalism, participatory journalism—just some of the terms used to describe the public’s new role in the production of news.

Courtesy eyeonsheridan.net

But what do any of those terms mean in a practical sense? They seem to be used interchangeably, to describe the same or different functions.

Although citizen journalists are largely understood to work outside of mainstream media, they often collaborate with traditional journalists. What some people see as the epitome of citizen journalism—the original Ohmy News Korea—is actually a collaboration between over 60-thousand amateurs and 70 professionals.

The citizens create the content; the journalists decide which stories make it to the web.

On cbc.ca’s Your Voice page, the work of citizen journalists is profiled in “Citizen Bytes”. Independent voices and unique stories being shared on a mainstream news site—including street-level reports from Cairo.

Clearly, there are no finite definitions—maybe because this is all so new. But there are two academic papers that offer the best breakdowns I’ve seen so far: Doing It Together: Citizen Participation In The Professional News Making Process and Exploring the Second Phase of Public Journalism.

For my own research, I’ve defined my own parameters for participatory journalism. You can read the full explanation here, but simply put,

Participatory journalism is all journalistic content created collaboratively by journalists, independent media, and citizens, as well as content created independently by citizen or independent media that is then acquired or used by mainstream media.

Participatory journalism is exactly what happened during the G20 in Toronto. CBC had an army of citizen bloggers sharing their version of events on the CBC website—and they weren’t just sharing photos. Some of them ended up doing live hits for television alongside professionals.

It’s also the premise for OpenFile, where residents of cities like Toronto and Ottawa can suggest story ideas that freelance journalists cover.

So what do you think? Does my definition of participatory journalism fit your perceptions? If not, why? I’d love to hear differing viewpoints on this.

No matter what you call it—this collaboration between citizen and professional journalists, news producers and their communities, is just beginning to hit its stride.

Based on multiple conversations in the past few weeks, I decided to change my research question. 

It’s now, how is participatory journalism changing mainstream media and public discourse?

When I put the 41-thousand words from my interview transcripts into a wordle what stands out most is people think.

From what I’ve been hearing and seeing, actively engaging the audience in the news process allows for more diverse, varied, and original storytelling.

It opens up the door for public discourse because it amplifies discussions that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked.

Perhaps McLuhan’s statement “the user is the content” will turn out to be more prophetic than the “medium is the message”.

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20 thoughts on “Participatory Journalism: What do you think that means?

    • Thanks for the links Chris. The citizen science alliance reminds me a lot of what Ohmy International is now focusing on, curating content:

      “We have a growing team of curators. They work hard to publish news, issues, tools and tips for citizen journalists.”

      One of the things I want to explore is how to amplify some of this great content that’s on the web — although a lot people are aware sites like the citizen alliance exist, many more have no clue. It’s an untapped goldmine.

    • Interesting comment Jack — but I wonder whose sleeping with whom 🙂 I think your comment gets to the heart of one of the big stumbling blocks of participatory journalism and that is the us vs. them attitude of many people who occupy both the traditional and emerging media worlds. In order for any relationship to work, there has to be trust and a willingness to look at the universe from a different perspective — and that can be a tall order.

    • I think I’ve actually become slightly addicted to wordle :), but I find it a very useful tool when looking for themes in conversations — you never know exactly what’s going to pop once you’ve entered all your data, but every time I’m pleasantly surprised the words that are most prominent make perfect sense in relation to the topic.

  1. Great post. The business is changing so fast. What has become clear, among all the ‘noise’ in our industry, is that good stories through credible reporting and news gathering will last and be of value. For what my opinion is worth, with social networking it seems foolish not to include the general public to help gather and share that content. At OpenFile, we watch the most original and user suggested stories have the most impact.

    • Thanks for commenting Wilf — and your post reminded me of the baby storm that took over openfile a few weeks ago. I saw you describe it as “Internet crack” on Twitter 🙂 I’m wondering if at some point editorially though, the journalists on the team felt the discussion might be eating up too much of the space that could be occupied by different stories. I remember reading one tweet that said something like, “haven’t had enough of the baby names story, check this out” and thinking to myself, what if you have? Or, do you think there was plenty of news to be garnered from the subject at the end of it all, such as the window on the diversity of Toronto’s neighbourhoods?

  2. It’s a tough balance for us – we want the people to drive the agenda but some of the stuff we do, the community reaction, will be out of our control. It may not be exactly as planned but we think that’s great. Some user suggested stories, at first blush, might seem like they will go nowhere and they take off. So best for the openfile team not to get to ‘top heavy’ and traditional by directing editorial agenda. Finally, having people ‘love it’ was not all that bad

  3. Thanks for that Wilf — I think, in some ways, learning to let go of what we’ve learned as journalists, ie. certain criteria for making a story “news” is one of the hardest parts of working in this new media environment…if thousands of people ‘love it’ obviously you’re on to something … and there’s nothing bad about thousands of people discussing/exploring their neighbourhoods. I look forward to seeing what story takes off on openfile next.

  4. i saw Ross’ comment and your response
    and it kind of touched on what i was already thinking in response to this post

    in your post you’ve defined this ‘participatory journalism’ etc as something that needs to have involvement from (professional=implied) journalists

    the ‘citizen media’ or whatever you want to call it, where anyone can actually create there own stuff and it doesn’t have to get carried/approved by mainstream media, is where i think the most innovation will come from, even if it’s not funded like the professionals are

    in your comment to Ross, you pointed out that the ‘fact checking’ doesn’t always apply to professional journalism, and the objectivity thing is also so passe

    if you want to get into thinking about the differences b/w mainstream / pro journalists and citizen ‘journalists’, i think you need to focus on 1) pros are ‘legitimized’ by being hired and paid to do the work (which brings into question who is doing the hire and legitimizing) 2) pros get ‘training’ which in a lot of peoples opinion is very much equivalent to indoctrination, status quo (even if it’s touted as ‘innovative’ or what have you) … and if you are indoctrinated well into doing things how the corporations want you to, then you will have a better chance at being a ‘legitimate’ journalist, cause that’s basically what they want … so the two work together and form a basis for those other differences that Ross puts down as being the major ones

    more to say but not now

  5. Thanks so much for your comment–I think your thoughts reflect those of many people who are frustrated with mainstream media. As I’m a bit time strapped I’ve posted a bit of my thesis proposal below that outlines why I feel the professionals are still needed to help promote discourse on important topics–despite the obvious issues with the system:

    “Although citizen journalists have the wherewithal to shed light on stories that need to be told, and versions of stories being ignored (Shirky, 2008), they generally don’t have the time, resources, or money to complete the types of investigations mainstream media can commit to. As well, finding dependable sources on the Internet while sorting through an information surplus (Chy, 2009; Yaros, 2009) takes “significant tenacity and time” (Bird, 2009, p. 45); online information is affected by a new type of gatekeeping – something of a popularity contest that gives certain individuals control over content in aggregated sites (Meraz, 2009); socio-economic barriers prevent much of the population from taking part in the online conversation (Rutigliano, 2009; Alia, 2010); and extremists can easily build social networks that ignore all other viewpoints (Carey, 2005; Dahlberg, 2005). Regardless of any positives or negatives regarding grassroots information available, mainstream news still attracts the widest audience by far (Curran & Witschge, 2010); the majority of messages received are produced to ensure profit, not, necessarily, build knowledge (Dahlgren, 2009; Lowrey, 2009; Sholle, 2005), and often endorse a specific political or social agenda (Beers, 2006). More research needs to be done on how to balance news for profit by amplifying diverse messages buried on the web”

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