TV News in a Postmodern World

Participatory Journalism

by Terry L. Heaton
In my favorite Peanuts comic strip, Lucy notices something on the ground and declares, "Well, look here! A big yellow butterfly." She adds that it's rare to find one this time of year and states that it probably flew up from Brazil. Linus looks closely and announces, "This is no butterfly...this is a potato chip!" Lucy gets on her hands and knees and says, "Well, I'll be! So it is! I wonder how a potato chip got all the way up here from Brazil?"

So it seems with TV executives who deny their world is collapsing around them and insist that any glitches in the system are only temporary. When the validity of the collapse finally hits home, they continue in the belief that it's either temporary, or that somehow we'll figure it all out. A shrinking local news audience is the butterly-turned-potato chip of local television. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans watched local news ten years ago. By 2002, that number had decreased to 57 percent. The response has been to cut staff and expenses while adding more shows in an effort to maintain market share. That's the Brazil effect, because there are other options.

Meanwhile, others, including news people caught in the middle, are at least asking what to do, but in order to answer that fully, one needs to first understand how we got where we are. Why don't people watch the news anymore? "Bringing people back" isn't the issue, because the problem is what we're trying to bring them back to! The world we used to know doesn't exist anymore, but we operate as though it does.

Technology is creating a new culture, Postmodernism, and Pomos, as they're known, seek something different. It's the Age of Participation. But audience participation means rubbing elbows with real people, something we don't seem to do very well from our arms-length position as professional authorities.

A little history: In the 1920s, newspaper mogul, Walter Lippmann, wrote a series of books that provided a founding chapter for modern journalism. He built a rationale for a journalism guided by a new idea: professional objectivity. As historian Christopher Lasch wrote, "In Lippmann's view, democracy did not require that people literally govern themselves. Questions of substance should be decided by knowledgeable administrators whose access to reliable information immunized them against the emotional 'symbols' and 'stereotypes' that dominated public debate. The public, according to Lippmann, was incompetent to govern itself and did not even care to do so." And so was born the fetish of objectivity that has served the industry well - until the Internet came along and spoiled all the fun. Modernism, with its core beliefs in science and reason, has been replaced by the new culture where experience is revered. "I don't need your experts!" cries the Pomo.

Lasch also makes a compelling argument that Lippmann and his contemporaries were more interested in creating a sterile environment in which to sell advertising than establishing professional high ground. It worked. Media moguls became wealthy media moguls and then reporters began to demand a cut. The Lippmann legacy of elitism was bad enough, but when coupled with the late 20th century cult of celebrity — spawned by all that wealth — the separation from real people was complete. News people, feeling themselves on the same level as the authorities they covered (or perhaps even a cut above), took the concept of the media elite to a whole new level. Caught in a web of self-importance, the Fourth Estate has drifted far from its original calling. And we wonder why people don't watch anymore.

There have been spotty attempts here and there to reach out and touch real people, but as a whole, the industry is still high on its pedestal. Community news had its moments in the 90s, when smart editors and news directors "got involved" by taking advocacy positions on issues important to everyday people. While some outstanding work was done, the efforts went the way of the hula hoop, victims of cost-cutting and consultants, who emphasized presentation over content.

But there's a new light on the horizon that illuminates the core of the problem, because it includes a fundamental change in the definition of a journalist. It's called Participatory Journalism, and its mission is to get everybody involved in the process of gathering and reporting the news — including those everyday people.

Online Journalism Review makes the statement that "Participatory journalism is a slippery creature," and then asks the question, "Everyone knows what audience participation means, but when does that translate into journalism?"

I love what NPR's Daniel Schorr said, "Freedom of the press used to be freedom for those who had a press. Now, with Internet publishing, everyone has a press, and this democratization could help mark this shift between Modernist elitism and Postmodern democracy."

Weblogs are gaining in popularity and credibility daily, and even mainstream Modernist news institutions like the New York Times are exploring adding them to their mix. Bloggers are an interesting lot with some wonderful insight into life in these United States. Ah, but the elite objects to its fatted calf being whacked in such a manner! We're actually coming up with terms to separate us from the bloggers, such as columnist Maggie Gallagher's "Journalistic Journalism." What the heck is that?

Three years ago in South Korea, a group of smart and enlighted folks came up with OhmyNews, a New Media concept for journalism. By anybody's measurement, it has been successful. In just three years, the Website of "citizen journalism," as they call it, has seen its full-time staff grown to 53 -- including 35 full-time reporters and editors -- and the number of "citizen reporters" writing for the site grow from 700 to about 26,700. Citizen reporters submit 200 articles every day, and a million readers visit OhmyNews each day. The site mixes straight news reporting and commentary. Its influence at the grassroots level has been widely credited with helping President Roh Moo-hyun win the popular vote last December. The OhmyNews slogan is "Every citizen is a reporter." No pedestal here!

Dan Gillmor, blogger and tech columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, writes, "OhmyNews is transforming the 20th century's journalism-as-lecture model — where organizations tell the audience what the news is and the audience either buys it or doesn't — into something vastly more bottom-up, interactive and democratic." Walter Lippmann must be rolling over in his grave.

OhmyNews may not be THE model for news in the 21st century, but it bears consideration for an industry that's going nowhere fast. It's a simple and relatively inexpensive concept for TV stations to try. Somebody's going to do it, so why not you? Here are five suggestions to jump start the idea.

  1. Create a reality show wherein viewers "compete" to be citizen reporters. Make a big deal of it. Winnow the field down to, say, twelve finalists, and build the show around them. Let each go out and do a story and have your audience "vote" on the five or six that will become your citizen journalists.
  2. Equip them with consumer level digital video recorders and laptop editors (Approx $10k each). Give them the training they need and turn them loose. You'll obviously want to maintain editorial control, but give them as much room as you can to report stories their own way. Pay them a stipend for each piece they generate.
  3. Mix their stories into your news with or without fanfare. You could flag each story for what it is, or let it stand on its own. If the OhmyNews experience teaches anything, it's that the professional will be surprised by what these people turn up.
  4. Make one newscast a 'citizen' newscast. It doesn't have to be in some highly visible daypart. People will find it. Stream this program and make it available on your Website.
  5. Get them together as a panel to comment on news regularly. Let these people represent the folks on the other side of the glass. Put them in a studio setting and roll tape. It would make a great Sunday feature.
A recent Gallup Poll shows six of ten Americans feel the media is biased. Most of those think the tilt is to the political left, while others think it leans to the right. This is evidence that the artificial journalistic hegemony of objectivity isn't working with the people it's supposed to serve. It doesn't work, because it can't work. The best a professional journalist can be is fair, and there will always be a place for that. And, to a certain extent, people will always need the editorial function provided by a professional press. There are some things people just need to know as opposed to what they want to know, Postmodern or not.

This is the most amazing time in the history of journalism. Technology has opened doors we couldn't imagine even 20 years ago. Rather than shrinking back under the cold blanket of the Brazil effect, let us open the floodgates of creativity and let the sun shine in. The answers are right in front of us. Participatory journalism, in one form or another, is surely one of them.