Wednesday, 29 October 2008

User-generated controversy

Many journalists feel threatened by the increasing amount of ‘user-generated content’ in mainstream news. At the same time, the demands of our ‘24-hour breaking news’ culture ensure that traditional media organizations are ever more reliant on images taken at the scene of an event by a camera-wielding public. Perhaps the quality is a bit poor, but this just makes the footage all the more authentic. After all, whose images do we most vividly remember from the London bombings or the Asian tsunami?

This is hardly a new phenomenon – perhaps the most famous example of ‘citizen’ journalism is the amateur video capturing the assassination of JFK. As technology and the Internet become more available, I expect we’ll see an increase in first-account images and stories that paid journalists have no chance of scooping themselves.

So does this mean that anyone with a camera and access to the Internet is a potential journalist, or are they simply witnesses with recordable eyes? I’d veer towards the latter, as it’s the journalists who have the time to follow up, research and refine the facts that turn the images into a story. Except that now it’s user-generated words, not images that are unnerving the media world.

The public voice is heard no more loudly than on USG ‘citizen’ journalism sites like allvoices, Helium or CNN’s iReport. A recent hoax post on iReport – claiming that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack – led to freefall of Apple shares on the US financial market and served to highlight one of the most serious criticisms of this type of news: what, if any, code of ethics do these ‘journalists’ work by? And more importantly, can they be trusted?

Clearly such sites are a leap forward for the freedoms of both speech and information – Helium’s motif ‘learn what you need, share what you know’ summarizes their worth. But, can we really just rely on the ‘self-correcting nature’ of these sites put forward by web journalists like Jeff Jarvis? After all, they argue, it never takes too long for a hoax to be uncovered – but is this really good enough? I don’t think many Apple shareholders would agree.

I’d like to see more new sites incorporating voting systems like those on Digg and Slashdot where readers rate their favourite, and likely, most trusted contributors. Perhaps in the future there’ll be more that take the Huffington Post model only giving out passwords to ‘syndicated’ contributors.

The potential of user-generated content is enormous. Most obviously, there's just so much news, and this news covers enormous ground, territory that traditional outlets often lack time, resources or will to explore. The very fact that there are so many users engaged with what’s going on around them and interacting is great, not just for democracy, but for a more cohesive society. Talk of censorship is disturbing but complaints will continue to be raised when content fails to fall in line with traditional media standards.

As demand for USG increases, the media using the material must avoid encouraging citizen journalists, keen to see their footage on the television or in the paper, into potentially dangerous situations to which they would never send their own staff. Ultimately, for the two streams to co-exist and feed positively off one another, both the amateurs and the professionals need to find ways that ensure responsible output without sacrificing quality for quantity.

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