Seemingly every major news event worldwide is heightening participation in news. People are eager to share updates and photos of an unfolding news event, ask questions of media outlets, and share important information. But there are two important aspects to this type of participation: (1) people are most interested in sharing news about the community around them, specifically with others in their community and (2) the mechanism by which they choose to share information is dependent upon personal habits and access. In other words, people write about their immediate world using their ‘home’ or go-to platform.
Recently, Hurricane Sandy here in the United States demonstrated this, with Twitter and Instagram in particular serving as major platforms for people to participate in an unfolding, news-worthy event. And media outlets took notice, with extensive reports around the effort of citizen participation. Some lauded the efforts of individuals to share information on Twitter; while others noted the changing flavor of the tweets, which evolved from humorous pokes at media coverage to critical information exchange. And of course, one user’s account was famously unmasked for its false and potentially dangerous tweets. Instagram also received a lot of coverage, in part because of its popularity for those sharing photos of the storm, but also because it became a hub for major media outlets to find photos of storm-affected areas. The popularity of Instagram even sparked a debate about whether the site, generally used for sharing fun photos between friends, was appropriate for sharing disaster-related photos (disclosure: I think it was perfectly appropriate). And as access to some news sites failed due to power outages in New York City, people began gravitating to other news sites that fit their needs instead, such as Tumblr.
SMS played a large role in the event was well. The US Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), a free, SMS-based emergency alert system, was deployed for the first time since it became operational six months ago, largely with successful results. In fact, the US Federal Communications Commission asks people in emergencies to use SMS when possible, in part because SMS is generally reliable, even when networks aren’t fully operational, and in part because SMS is highly efficient and reduces congestion on cell networks. NBC News notes that people can even use SMS to pull information from the Internet when they otherwise lack web access. In New York City, community relief operations created an SMS-based reporting platform, among other tech-related reporting tools. Here in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post requested reports of power outages via SMS.
One intriguing aspect of communication was that as the emergency unfolded, information sharing became increasingly specific to location, starting with general observations about the anticipated effects on the US mid-Atlantic region, then on the New York City metropolitan area, then Lower Manhattan and Hoboken, NJ as those areas took the brunt of the storm in that region. On Twitter, hash tags were first created for the storm, then broken out by city, e.g. #SandyDC or #SandyNYC. Over time, community members were working in a non-linear, moderately coordinated way to share critical information, and this phenomenon is not unique to Hurricane Sandy or to the United States.
Around the world, we are seeing a growing assembly of what I’ll call participatory news communities, or groups of people who have the opportunity to participate and provide feedback to news. I’ve written about this before, largely from a theoretical perspective, but I recently attended two conferences that indicated just how large this phenomenon is becoming. As an aside, it also framed for me how desperate we’ve become to fill the language gap around how communities participate in news. No two people seem to agree whether we should call this citizen reporting, participatory news, or even just recognize that social media IS the media of the future, and drop the whole ‘social’ pretext.
Regardless of how we choose to characterize this – let’s call it citizen reporting and social media as a short hand for now – it has become an established part of newsroom strategy. First, take a look at the 40 finalists of the African News Innovation Challenge. I had the pleasure of meeting most of these finalists as a technical adviser at recent conference. By my count, 15 of the 40 finalist projects – 38% – focus on community participation in news, in one form or another. Of these, several projects are actively trying to establish community dialogue about news. Others are looking to source news tips or basic citizen reporting. So, does 15 data points make a trend? I would argue it does, especially as the ANIC finalists are a select, distinguished group chosen from a larger pool of applicants.
At another recent conference hosted by the International Center for Journalists, called Turn Up the Volume: Bringing Voice to Mobile Citizen Journalism, discussions focused on seeking ways to incorporate voice into news gathering and sharing processes using Interactive Voice Response (IVR). An IVR system is essentially an automated telephone response system that guides callers through a menu of options and allows them to perform certain tasks. Via this mechanism, it is easy to see the potential to include even more people in a participatory news community, including those with low literacy skills, or those who have difficulty texting due to high rates or language barriers on mobile key pads. Again, at that conference, a key point continually raised was how people could not only receive news, say by calling a number and hearing headlines read aloud, but also participate in news. This might include sharing news tips, reporting on certain local issues, or providing feedback such as questions related to ongoing news topics.
Generally speaking, many communities worldwide are are largely in a social, participatory news culture. Sharing facebook news posts, commenting on blogs, interacting with reporters via Twittter, and CNN’s robust iReport are but a few examples of the means for communities to influence and access news in compelling new ways. But any professional journalist will tell you it’s been a long slog to reach this point, largely because it’s reshaped the thinking of large media outlets. But in places where the concepts of professional journalism are only now taking root, and participation is built into the fabric of this effort, we may yet see new models for community participation. The most successful models, those that will drive the next round of innovation in journalism, will not only have a community focus, but will also follow the lowest barriers to participation – technology that feels like home.