The role of "audience" in news production

In my blogs, I often struggle to define the boundaries between what I should (and should not) use them for. Though the blogs I maintain have very specifically defined purposes, and so the content used in each is discrete, I often wonder if I should be placing preliminary ruminations alongside my finished thoughts.

I was presented with a new research idea for an article or an essay, and I’m going to list it here to remind myself at some later time. This function is normally served by email (yes, I often email myself with reminders, and yes, that is kind of bizarre) or my Palm Pilot. But this reminder actively deals with this blog’s subject matter, so I thought I’d post it here.

Earlier today, I had lunch with Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas’s School of Journalism. I have worked with Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez on her U.S. Latinos and Latinas & World War II oral history project. To date, my work has centered on developing the online presentation of the history materials and helping with any of the technical needs the project has.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez was telling me about a peculiar case she had encountered during the course of her work. The project collects photos and narratives of WW2 veterans and presents them in a newspaper periodical and the online site. Sometimes, people come across the site and contact the project office to ask questions, submit materials or pose new areas of inquiry.

The peculiar case in question regarded a person in Belgium who saw the site and contacted the office to find a particular subject’s family. The Belgian connection wanted to pass along some photos of the subject to his family. From there, the incident took a strange soap-operaish turn as there appeared to be an addition to the family sired by the now deceased WW2 vet years ago.

The interesting aspect of this story for me is the role the site played its development. Though many budding and professional journalists have worked on the site, it was not a newshound that tracked down these connections. Rather, information was presented in a medium that transcends the restrictions of time and space and the actors in the story used it to make all the connections themselves. This, in my opinion, is a good example of the future of journalism.

I see the impact of technology as allowing the “audience” (or perhaps we should go ahead and adopt the “users” label?) to become participants in the creation of news. Traditionally, the concept of mass media assumes heavily involvement in the production process by the writers and editors and a passive involvement from the readers or viewers, usually in the form of letters written in response to a media message.

However, the electronic technology we now use allows much faster interaction between people, and I believe the future of journalism is a closer engagement with the consumers of news, who will in turn help create the content. Blogging is a good example of this phenomenon. And before the thousands of blogs that now populate the Internet could be found, post-it forums served a similar function.

I believe a striking example of these new relationships came in 1999, when the online news site Austin360 began to cover the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy. When the bonfire collapse occurred, the site was among the first to post information. But it was on the post-it forums where the power of the new medium (and the new challenges) appeared. As scant details began to slowly be released, online visitors began to discuss the tragedy, support one another and even mourn with those who said they had lost loved ones in the tragedy. However, as users began to post information on the post-it boards, they soon began to cite information that had not been released to Austin360 by the authorities.

As posters began to lists names of the deceased, the editorial staff of the publication was presented an interesting dilemma. They could not verify the information being presented, yet they feared they would be held liable should the families seek damages due to privacy or defamation concerns. So, the editors began to moderate the forums and control the input of information.

Though the ultimate decision was to abridge the voice of the users, cases like Austin360’s coverage of the bonfire tragedy represent a new relationship between the professional journalist and the audience. When the audience is involved in the newsgathering function, and the journalist become merely a disseminator, one participant among many.

I feel this is our future.