When television cameras panned across the room full of senators and representatives during the recent presidential address to a joint session of Congress, the audience at home caught a glimpse of several political leaders tweeting away on their BlackBerry phones.
At the national level, social media has been embraced by many politicians. Even the White House has a Twitter account and Flickr feed. But is the same true of local campaigns and politicians? How much are Facebook, MySpace and Twitter being integrated into the communication strategies of local political campaigns?
"We look at it as a way to get a message to our constituents and in a campaign to potential voters," said Mesa, Arizona mayor Scott Smith in a phone interview.
Smith, who was elected to office in May 2008, said his use of social media is a critical component in engaging his constituents. Mesa is a city of more than 463,000 people, yet this community, located roughly 20 miles from Phoenix, is without its own newspaper or local TV news outlet.
"It's not just the rise in social media, it's the change in more traditional sources [of information]," Smith said. "And for a city our size that shares newspapers with an adjoining city and doesn't have access to more formal and traditional forms of media, social networking has become essential because in many ways it's not only the best way of getting things out, it's the only way to get your message out."
The decline of local journalism
Smith's community isn't the only smaller city or town to find itself suffering form a lack of local press. While the New York City mayoral election attracts interest from the New York Times, elsewhere the media landscape has changed drastically, thanks to the shuttering of smaller newspapers that were traditionally the source of local political coverage. In some places, social media is being used to try and replace some of what has been lost in terms of professional reporting.
"As money becomes tighter as traditional media outlets become either non-existent or more and more restrictive to how much they cover and the scope of their coverage, I think social media is going to play an increasingly important role in local campaigns because they are all we have," Smith said.
For Boulder, Colo., city council candidate KC Becker, social media technologies like Facebook have become an essential part of her campaign. However, Becker does admit to having some trouble figuring out how to use Twitter.
"I didn't get on Twitter until I decided to run and honestly it has been the technology that still eludes me a little bit," Becker said in a phone interview. "It should be a good outlet for a political candidate, but I just find it a little bit overwhelming and a little bit harder to use."
Some mayors, like Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., have set the bar high with their use of Twitter. Booker has more than 757,000 followers and has engaged his followers by tweeting everything from local policy initiatives to old proverbs.
Lansing, Mich., mayor Virg Bernero, who is running for re-election in November, uses his tweets to promote appearances on Fox and CNN. Bernero campaign manager Patrick McAlvey says occasionally the tweets or videos have gone viral and have been reposted in a number of avenues outside of the Lansing constituency.
"To some extent some things have caught more attention or have been retweeted more often," McAlvey said in a phone interview. "Some of it has to do with the size of our market, but some videos have gone viral."
A Cultural Shift in the Media Landscape
The 2008 presidential campaign was a watershed moment for new media technology. West Hartford, Conn., mayor Scott Slifka says years ago during his previous mayoral campaigns, the only people using Facebook were almost exclusively in their 20s. But Slifka, who is in the heat of his own re-election bid, says there has been a quantum leap in the number of people of all ages logging in to social media. This has had an impact on how political messages spread.
"The thing that strikes me is how rapid new media technologies are," Slifka said. "In a smaller community like ours [about 61,000 people] where the government may not be one that is full-time...you are used to moving at a slightly slower pace. It was really the pace of the printed newspaper."
Slifka said that if there were three or four newspaper stories about local politics in one week, it was significant. Now, news and rumors spread instantly through the blogosphere and are shared on social networks. Local politicians are not just dealing with a new story in the paper -- they are dealing with the fallout from it around the clock.
"I think most local governments aren't really equipped for that kind of rapid response," Slifka said.
Perhaps most significant to the evolving shift in local political communication is the sense that social media is starting to fill the void left by downsized news staffs or the complete absence of journalists in smaller communities.
"A newspaper article gives you such a shallow understanding of the events that occurred at City Hall," said recently elected Tuscaloosa, Ala., mayor Walter Maddox. "A television story is 30 seconds if you are lucky. Through our website, through Facebook, through MySpace and Twitter, we can provide a more detailed and compelling message to the voters of why we are making a certain policy decision.
Maddox said it is important not to post "bureaucratic mumbo jumbo" online because it loses local interest. He said the potential communication capabilities of social media are causing his new government to revamp its online presence.
"It's literally a town hall opportunity to communicate with people," he said. "And they get an opportunity to communicate back with you. That's why it's important and that's why it's going to continue being important."
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven is a second year graduate student at Michigan State University in the School of Journalism. His research has covered news media bias and framing issues, censorship during war, urban revitalization, renewable energy and climate change.
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As social networking sites and technologies have flourished over the last few years, there has been much discussion about privacy today. It is not that uncommon for people to provide updates about their personal lives on their Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds. They talk about if they are sick, have a crush on somebody, are out partying, etc.
While this information sharing is innocuous at times while concerning at others, there are some social networks that are pushing the limits. For instance, while at the O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Summit last week, I learned about the site PatientsLikeMe. This is a fascinating site in which people with medical conditions come to connect with other people suffering from the same condition. However, there is so much more than providing moral support and answering questions, people are expected to build detailed profiles about their bodies and health histories. When they undergo treatment, they are encourage to share their experiences to it. Does it give them gas? Do they get headaches? Is their sex life affected? Of course, does the treatment actually work?
Now, it is one thing for me to announce on Facebook that I’m going to have Papa John’s Pizza for dinner tonight, but it is another to share personal side effects of a medication that I’m currently taking. PatientsLikeMe does acknowledge privacy, but expounds upon the importance of openness on the site by stating: “You see, we believe sharing your healthcare experiences and outcomes is good…for a greater purpose: speeding up the pace of research and fixing a broken healthcare system.” By sharing detailed health information about yourself, you help others understand how medical conditions and the procedures used to treat them work.
So, do you think that openly sharing your health information on the Internet is worth the potential it can to help others with their health?
The ability of anyone to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and sharing news and information is seen as one of the big shifts in journalism over the past 10 years.
But a growing body of research suggests that the advent of participatory journalism, or user-generated content (UGC), has done little to change the way the media works.
At the recent Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University, academics presented a series of studies that further illustrated how the mainstream media is trying to tame the phenomenon.
The research paints a global picture of how journalists are seeking to maintain their position of authority and power, rather than create a more open, transparent and accountable journalistic process that seeks to work with readers.
One of the studies looked at the BBC, which is considered a pioneer in the field of user-generated content. The BBC has 23 people working in its UGC hub, up from just three in 2005, and receives thousands of comments and emails every day along with hundreds of photos and videos.
Researchers Claire Wardle, Andrew Williams and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen interviewed BBC journalists in 2007. What they found was that BBC staff see UGC as a part of newsgathering operations; basically, it's a way of obtaining photos and video, eyewitness accounts or story tip.
The researchers concluded that UGC has become institutionalized at the BBC as a form of newsgathering, consolidating the existing relationship between journalists and the audience. They did find some examples of BBC journalists that view it as a way to collaborate on stories, or as a shift towards networked journalism. But these views existed at the edges.
This institutional approach towards UGC was reflected in the BBC course on the topic, entitled "Have They Got News for Us." This session at the conference focused on how to scour comments, pictures and video from the public in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than on how to collaborate with the audience on stories.
No News in Comments
Finding newsworthy material in contributions from the public is a challenge. In his study about Dutch newspapers and UGC presented at the conference, Piet Bakker found that there was little news contained in comments on stories.
From the point of view of the traditional journalist, the amount of news in comments was minimal. Instead, comments were seen as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, but these benefits were counterbalanced by problems with abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation.
This ties in to another conference paper that looked at the attitudes of journalists in the U.K. when it comes to user-generated content. In interviews with local journalists working for the Johnston Press, Jane Singer found that most see the public as complementing, rather than replacing, the work of professionals. The journalists saw themselves as UGC gatekeepers, citing concerns about the quality of contributions and legal liabilities.
This approach is understandable at a time when the local press in the U.K. is in trouble. Journalists may feel under even more pressure to justify why amateurs cannot replace them, or offer meaningful contributions.
Singer found that local journalists saw a theoretical value in participatory journalism in that it's a way to promote democratic discourse. But another paper presented by Marina Vujnovic on behalf of an international group of researchers that included myself found that this ideal did not figure highly in the minds of the online editors of newspaper websites. They instead look to UGC to drive traffic, increase loyalty, and provide free content for their sites.
The Audience as Audience
These were just a few of the more than 100 papers presented in Cardiff. But they illustrate how the mainstream media is attempting to limit and control how much the public can contribute to its journalism. These studies suggest that as far as journalists and editors are concerned, the people formerly known as the audience is still known as the audience.
The space for the audience to participate in journalism is, by and large, clearly delineated. The public can send in their news tips, photos and videos, but the journalist retains a traditional gatekeeper role, deciding what is newsworthy and what isn't. There is little room for the public to be involved in the actual making of the news -- in deciding whom to interview, how to frame the story and how to produce it. Once the story is complete and published, the audience can freely comment on the final product.
An international study published in Journalism Practice concluded mainstream media is eager to open comments and post-publication discussion to the public, as this fits in with their definition of the audience as audience. But forms of pro-am or networked journalism are rare.
Online journalism is still in its infancy and it will take time for journalistic attitudes to change. But there are very few signs that news organizations are reinventing their relationship with the audience and tapping into the participatory potential of the web to reimagine journalism.
Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.
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Since May 2009, Tamer Mabrouk has held one of the saddest records regarding human rights abuses in Egypt. He is the first blogger to receive a fine after a company sued him for having criticized its activities in Lake Manzala, which is connected to the Suez Canal. Mabrouk was fined $8,700, lost his job, and was forced to move out of Port Said where he had been leaving for years.
Mabrouk's offense was that he blogged about the pollution the Trust Chemicals Company was dumping into Manzala Lake. Perhaps because they were afraid -- or corrupt -- the local authorities did not investigate the issue after Mabrouk brought it to light. So, with a few clicks, he decided to publish pictures proving the detrimental effect of the Trust Chemicals Company. In June 2008, the company sued him for defamation.
"I tried to sue the company myself to ask for its closure," Mabrouk said in a video posted on YouTube. "But the local court argued it did not have the jurisdiction to decide on that matter. Meanwhile, the Trust Chemicals Company was offering me money in return for my silence. I turned it down. Now, they want me to publish a denial."
(You can read more about Mabrouk's case at the Reporters Without Borders site.)
Environmental Writers Locked Up
Mabrouk is by no means the only person to suffer for reporting about environmental disasters. Reporters in different parts of the world deal with fines, jail and threats as a result of their work.
In China, for example, environmental activists often face repression after they gain the attention of international media. In July 2009, the anti-nuclear activist Sun Xiaodi and his daughter were sentenced to two years in a labor camp for "divulging state secrets abroad" and "publishing rumors." Their crime? Publishing information online about the contamination of inhabitants of Gansu Province, which was caused by a Uranium 792 mine. Sun Xiaodi also published articles on corrupt officials of the Diebu district. For more than 20 years, Sun Xiaodi, a former worker in the Uranium 792 mine, has been fighting to raise awareness about the contamination.
Another environmental activist, Wu Lihong, received a three-year prison sentence for warning Chinese and international media about pollution in Lake Taihu, which is the third largest lake in China.
Aside from punishing those who speak out, the government also attempts to restrict the flow of critical health information. In 2005, the Chinese Propaganda Department, the government body that is also in charge of censorship, waited 10 days before authorizing the press to report about the benzene pollution threatening the Songhua river in Northeast China, completely disregarding the millions of people who live there.
Threats and obstacles
The environment is one of the biggest issues of our time. In order to preserve nature, we must be able to evaluate the resources we have left, and examine how they are being used. This kind of data helps inform society and influence political leaders to create new standards. It's essential that specialists and environmental reporters are able to provide accurate information about the world around us. Unfortunately, journalists and bloggers are facing more and more obstacles and threats as they go about their work.
Sometimes, a single visit by a journalist at a sensitive location is enough to spark a crisis. As an example, Cambodia has lost half of its forests over the last 15 years. After the organization Global Witness released reports on the situation, three journalists investigated the issue and subsequently received death threats. Their reporting revealed unflattering details about the involvement of relatives of the head of the government, Hun Sen. His brother, Hun Neng, said if anyone from Global Witness came to Cambodia, he would "beat his head up until it breaks."
Lem Piseth, a journalist from Radio Free Asia, also received death threats as a result of his work. "About the story of the forest; I want you to know that you won't find enough land there to bury you," he was told. Piseth was forced to flee the country.
In undemocratic countries, bloggers and reporters are often left to fend for themselves, which is why it's so important that their work is recognized and publicized.
Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.
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With Examiner.com recently buying out citizen media site NowPublic for a reported $25 million, the attention turned to similar independent sites such as Allvoices. Would it now become buyout fodder for a mainstream media company, or would it suffer the fate of so many citizen journalism sites that came before it, shutting down before finding a successful business model?
To find out more, I went with videographer Charlotte Buchen to visit the Allvoices headquarters in downtown San Francisco yesterday. The office space alone mirrors the heights (and lows) that shadow the startup. Up on the 15th floor of the tony One Sansome building, Allvoices has about 10 people stuffed into a conference room, with the CEO Amra Tareen having her own office across a cubicle farm that sits largely empty due to failed startups having vacated the premises.
Allvoices received $4.5 million in funding in 2007, launched the site in 2008, and is now looking for another round of funding in a challenging climate. The site allows people around the world to submit stories, photos and video on what's happening around them, and then uses computer algorithms and the community to filter that content and surround it with relevant stories aggregated from mainstream news sources. So a story about the recent hijacking of an Aeromexico flight includes links to a San Jose Mercury News story, other posts on Allvoices, related tweets on Twitter, and comments from the community.
The site's traffic took off in early 2009, now averaging about 3 million unique visitors per month, according to Allvoices, with reports coming in from 167 countries (though 40% of visitors are from the U.S.). The site has an incentive program to pay contributors depending on their page views and fan loyalty, as well as a new syndication program that will compensate contributors for images or videos that are sold to media outlets.
Can the site survive and thrive in a tough economic climate for online advertising? Or will it become an adjunct for a mainstream media company? I met the Allvoices team, including charismatic CEO Amra Tareen, and the following is my video report from that meetup.
What do you think about the chances for Allvoices being profitable or bought out? Can standalone citizen media sites survive? How? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Videography and photos by Charlotte Buchen.
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