The partnership between CBC and citizen bloggers during the G20 Summit in Toronto is one of the best examples of participatory journalism and offers a road map for others interested in forming new relationships with the audience.
Reporting on volatile protests side-by-side, ordinary citizens and CBC staffers exemplified what Jenkins calls convergence culture: a mash up of old and new media interacting in “unpredictable ways”. The picture on the right is just one of almost 3000 uploaded to a CBC flickr site.
Before citizen bloggers were selected to take part they were screened by CBC staff. Expectations on both sides were discussed, and certain parameters were outlined–this was about unique story coverage, not ranting. One employee described it as “curated citizen contributions…curated before they’ve [citizens] actually given it [content]”.
Citizen bloggers weren’t assigned stories, but “bumped” into them. Although their work was vetted, special attention was paid to keep citizen content as close to the original product as possible.
The collaborative relationship provided more insight into events, but the professionals never knew what to expect. For example, one participant set up a camera on his balcony to capture what was happening where the police were set up. The same citizen blogger interviewed a friend over a beer about lost wages because of summit security measures. His contributions were described as “fantastic”.
In an ideal participatory relationship, perhaps one that could only be found at a public broadcaster, citizens can offer original, unstructured material and professionals can add to that coverage by curating the best content and balancing it with their own. Who is presenting the information becomes less important–authenticity of information becomes more apparent. Which is what happened when CBC News Network started putting the citizens on the air:
- “So the journalists started to follow the citizens, and the citizens started to follow the journalists in what they were updating and the stories they were telling and it was just this organic thing where everybody was coming up with new ideas of how they could build on the last thing and people were inspired by each other.”
Multiple sources and broken story patterns as a result of citizen involvement improve news coverage because unique voices are heard, while tired, traditional news formats are broken. From a business perspective, it gave CBC an edge:
- “If it’s commodity news, then everybody’s got it. What are we going to do that’s going to differentiate us? If we don’t find ways of differentiating ourselves then we’re not really giving people a reason to come to us. So G20 is a good example; that was a key differentiator.”
The citizen bloggers working for CBC could easily have provided the same coverage on their own independent websites or blogs, but their messages could have easily been lost in the quagmire of Internet content:
- “I don’t assume that some of these conversations wouldn’t be happening if we’re not there, but I do think we have the ability to profile it with a big audience. We have a platform; we have the privilege of highlighting their conversations.”
A great description of lessons learned by CBC staff can be found in this MediaShift article.
But from my perspective, what could be most important about the CBC’s G20 coverage is that it proves a participatory model that treats citizen reporters with the same respect as staff; works to amplify diverse stories; and creates organizational structures to showcase citizen content results in quality journalistic practices and products–which in the end, promotes critical public discourse.