PodCastConUK 2006: Podcasting and the Citizen Journalist

Neil McIntosh, Chris Vallance and Suw Charman sat on a panel last Saturday talking about citizen journalism and podcasting. Apart from knowing and liking everyone on the panel, I like how moderator John Buckley kept a tight lid on the prepared talks so that this was more of a conversation rather than the panel talking at the assembled podcasters.

Suw started off by burying the ‘us versus them’, journalists versus bloggers and podcasters old yarn. Suw and I are really tired about this false dichotomy. Instead, she tried to frame the question this way: “How can we support journalistic endeavours?”

She asked the audience: “Who here has never blogged a fact?” Only one hand went up in the back.

Chris added a great disclaimer saying that no one should ask him about BBC policy because in the BBC eco-system, “I am just above pond life.” Chris might be low in the BBC hierarchy, but he is doing some of the most forward-thinking work with citizen media anywhere in the BBC.

Chris and I helped launch the Pods and Blogs show on 5Live in April 2005, when I came to the UK to do some work on a blogging strategy for the BBC. I was in London, and Chris in LA. We worked together using e-mail, IM and Skype. He asked whether people would like to hear three pundits on the Iraq war or the voices of soldier-bloggers, Iraqi bloggers and others on the Iraq war, and said that that was where citizen journalism has an advantage over traditional radio – the opportunity for previously unheard voices to be able to tell their stories.

Chris said that podcasting had really opened his eyes to doing new things in radio. Knowing Chris, he’s both a great advocate for podcasting and new technology while also being a huge fan of traditional speech radio. He has seen how podcasting can open up a world of voices to improve traditional radio journalism. During the midterms, he put out a call for citizen journalists, and he
received not only text submissions for the blog but also audio clips,
one of which he played during the panel. He received the clip ahead of the US midterms from a podcaster that really demonstrated some of the divisions amongst US voters.

He rejected the ethos of crowdsourcing, saying that this isn’t about getting as much out of your audience as you can just to cut costs, but stressed that this was more about collaboration. Most of mainstream broadcasters are now frequently asking people what they think, but Chris said that this was only a small step. Podcasting allows a way for all these wonderful voices to be heard.

Chris stressed that this was a cultural shift for broadcasters more than anything and added that broadcasters needed to rethink their definition of news, making it more expansive than pundits and experts.

Neil, the head of editorial development at the Guardian, doesn’t really like the term citizen journalism, and he said that he felt a bit like an imposter being on the panel. He admitted that the Guardian news site is more interactive than Guardian podcasts. (That’s on my to do list when I get back from a couple of weeks of leave.) Neil said that citizen journalism was promoted by former journalists and academics who wanted to get on the conference circuit, and he said that while bloggers and podcasters pointed out things that journalism needed to do better, it was journalists’ responsibility to sort out these problems. He didn’t see citizen journalism as a solution to those problems.

The questions from the assembled podcasters began with one about fact-checking and the quality of information from citizen journalists, specifically about a rumour started by a podcaster that had been picked up by a tabloid. After a few questions from Neil, we found out the tabloid was The Sun, and that the podcaster in question was actually the guy who had asked the question. He made up a rumour about Doctor Who that a character was coming back.

Suw said that most media outlets are relying on a traditional paradigm of trust rooted in their brand. For instance, she said that the BBC rely on their brand, and say, “We are the BBC, and we have trust.” It’s led to arrogance, and it’s led to sloppiness like the podcaster described. She speaks to journalists in her role as executive director of the Open Rights Group, and after the article comes out, she sees her words quoted back to her incorrectly.

I would add that journalists worth their salt understand that they are only as good as their last story, and that credibility is something earned and all too easily lost these days. Over-reliance on trust in the brand of an organisation is an invitation to disaster. It can breed complacency amongst staff. Individual members of staff must understand that trust in the brand is everyone’s job.

As Suw often says: “Your brand won’t save you now.” And she questioned the question about fact-checking:

How can we progress citizen journalism when there is no fact-checking? …That’s the wrong question. How can we progress journalism and fact-checking?

Another question from the audience was about the changing relationship with the audience, a smart audience that can assess information in a very savvy way.

Neil said that it’s faintly depressing thing when you know a lot about an issue that you read an article that doesn’t quite get it right. And he said that even he has been misquoted in press trade publications.

Suw said that there are patches where the media has respect for their audience, but she said that many in the media treat their audience in the Points of View paradigm, a programme where Barry Took and then Ann Robinson would condescendingly read out letters from the audience, often attributed to Angry from Milton Keynes.

Many in the media believe that their audience is insane or only give feedback when they are pissed off. But that belief allows them to dismiss the views of their audience and keep the audience at arm’s length.

Chris said that comments and feedback have always been important to radio. He spoke to Dave Slusher of the Evil Genius Chronicles about the difference between traditional feedback and what goes on with podcasts. Dave felt that it was one of power. In the past, the radio presenters always came from a position of power relative to their audience, now there is equality between podcasters that allows them to have a genuine conversation.

Culturally, Suw said that this was about niche content, and she called on a re-definition of news. News is not all about current events. She wishes that there was better hyperlocal content.

I’m spotting a trend here. Both Chris and Suw have called for a redefinition of news. Chris wants to bring in other voices. Suw thinks that news is more than current affairs. I remember shortly before I left the BBC, one of our presenters had contacted a blogger in Indonesia about a ‘news’ story. The blogger said that no one in Indonesia was talking about that story that had gripped the international media. Everyone in Indonesia was actually talking about some popular song.

I often joke that the only people who are generally interested in news
are journalists and maybe politicians. Most people have a range of
interests and personal passions.

I wonder, in this post-scarcity age with respect to information, why the agenda can sometimes still be so narrow? We can cover so much more, and work with our audience to expand the agenda. But as the amount of information increases, we also need to develop much better tools to help people find their way through this information.  

Back to PodcastConUK and another question from the audience: If you listen to the comments, do you focus too much on a vocal minority? That’s a good question. Participation models usually show that only a fraction of our audience currently participate, although that participation occurs on several levels.

The conversation ended on democratisation of media, based on a question from Ewan Spence. Ewan said that we were in a golden age, a renaissance, but as we emerge from the industrial age, but “we are fucking it up”, screwing up the planet through our shortsighted ecological mismanagement. Suw commented that the one thing that was different now to past renaissances was that now we have democratised media, this is a renaissance of the people, not simply a change in power from one elite to another. And that it was this democratisation that gives her hope that we might help turn the tide.

The key thing, I think, is the change in culture and the change in relationship between journalists, podcasters and the people formerly known as the audience: More voices, a broader agenda and more collaboration.

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