User generated content More Democracy or Less Professionalism?

Networking by participation journalism?
Networking by participation journalism? | Photo (detail): pepsprog / pixelio.de

Posting photos, tweeting news and messages – on Web 2.0 anyone can be a journalist. What effects, however, has this had on the media landscape and the way public opinion is formed?

Nowadays media users are much more than mere recipients. They post comments, give assessments and provide content. The classic dividing line between those who publish stories and those who consume what is published has become blurred. In today’s “culture of participation” it is both media-makers and media-users who together shape public opinion.

More and more media are now succumbing to their audience’s urge to communicate by disseminating, for example, “user generated content”. They try to integrate such things as home-made video clips, blog entries and comments into their particular medium. One of the best examples of this might well be the reader-reporter campaign launched by the Bild newspaper – Germany’s most successful tabloid. Bild asks its readers both online and in print form to submit photos that are as spectacular as possible to the editorial office. Particularly popular snapshots are either posted on the website or printed in the newspaper and they are awarded prizes and gifts. Despite a few critical comments that speak of a “paparazzisation of society”, the campaign is a hit and well known all over Germany.

German bloggers say, “No, thank you!”

An example of what might be called only a moderately successful attempt to exploit user generated content to one’s own advantage would be the launching of Huffington Post Deutschland in October 2013. The Huffington Post is an online newspaper that publishes articles and contributions written by their own editorial team, but actually manages to live off a large number articles that are written free of charge by guest authors. This kind of set-up has been successful in the USA for years. When, however, the Huffington Post asked well known German bloggers just before the launch if they would like to work with the Huffington Post and contribute articles free of charge, the project met with little enthusiasm. One of the German bloggers who was asked, Kai Petermann, published his written reply, “I’ll forward your suggestion to my landlord, my supermarket manager, my petrol pump attendant and my telephone company. Maybe in future they will also provide me with all the things I need free of charge.” Hardly any of German’s best known bloggers agreed to work with the Huffington Post.

In general the Germans’ enthusiasm for uploading their own videos onto the Internet or managing their own blog is still relatively modest. “In contrast, quite a large number of Germans use social networks, most of all Facebook”, says Leif Kramp, a media and communications specialist at the University of Bremen. “Here in Germany, that is where participation journalism has gained a foothold; in the meantime the social networks have become an integral part of journalistic research and the dialogue between journalists and users.” On TV and radio shows tweets and Facebook entries posted by the audience are being quoted more and more. In Germany, however, there does not seem to be many pioneers when it comes to involving users in the reporting and coverage of news.

“Call-a-Journalist”

At the beginning of 2014 a whole new form of cooperation between users and media-makers made a name for itself. The project was entitled “Call-a-Journalist” and although it does not live from direct user generated content, it was in fact only made possible by today’s culture of participation.

In Hamburg there is a local news magazine called Mittendrin and at the beginning of 2014 it decided to avail itself of the on-site reporting skills of its readership. They launched a campaign – “Call-a-Journalist” – which enabled readers of the online magazine to get into contact with one of the magazine’s editors. Whenever the user saw something happen, something that in his opinion was worth reporting about, all he had to do was click onto a red button and tell the editor about it.

This special campaign was in fact launched at an equally special time. Since the end of December 2013 Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, had been plagued with riots, unrest and demonstrators clashing with police. The Senat, Hamburg’s municipal council, reacted by declaring certain areas of the city danger zones and authorised the police to stop people on the streets and check their identity for no reason at all and with no restrictions. This led to further protests, the situation seemed to be getting out of hand, becoming more difficult to control.

The idea behind the “Call-a-Journalist” campaign was to make good use of the user’s “emergency call” via the red button and at the same time to provide professional reporting from an experienced journalist. The minds behind Mittendrin regard the “Call-a-Journalist” project as a success. The button might well only have been clicked five times over the campaign weekend, but every time it was worth hurrying to where the user was calling from and start reporting.

Democratic or unprofessional?

What do these developments mean for the world of journalism? Is professional journalistic content losing its significance? “Participation can in fact lead to the media becoming less professional, if user-generated content is used as a substitute for professional journalistic content - a trend that can already be observed among young people,” says Leif Kramp, media and communications specialist at the University of Bremen. At the same time, however, the way the general public is getting involved, is becoming more democratic, “Everybody can be part of it, everybody can potentially be heard and can morph him or herself into a mass medium,” according to Kramp. It is also the task of the journalists to incorporate this new, broader spectrum of opinions when they tackle a particular subject and engage with the public.”