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Chapter 5. Creating a new synthesis: emergent journalism
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Chapter 5. Creating a new synthesis: emergent journalism

Brian Lehrer Show "Uncommon Economic Indicators" Project

In 2007, WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show launched an ambitious crowdsourcing/citizen journalism initiative as part of its Uncommon Economic Indicators project. It was done to add depth to the show's reporting on how the recession affected the New York metropolitan area.

As part of this project, WNYC created an online manual to crowdsourcing that is a substantial how-to guide for starting a similar project at your own station. A valuable aspect of the manual is a set of 10 tips based on the show's experiences with crowdsourcing over more than 3 years.

Why did the station commit to crowdsourcing? According to project director Annie Schreffler, Brian Lehrer had long been an advocate of listener involvement in news. As the manual says, "We value new ways to collaborate with our listeners and we constantly look for innovative methods to do that."

The WNYC project stands out in part because the station didn't just passively open its website and accept any content submitted: it modeled the kind of substantive information it hoped to receive and also gave would-be citizen journalists guidance. For example, it shared the Principles of Journalism with readers, and Schreffler did the first story, to give a frame of reference. They also didn't hesitate to remove inappropriate material (although Schreffler says the listener community frequently "self-corrected" errors).

Schreffler is passionate about crowdsourcing as a tool for adding a valuable extra dimension to the Brian Lehrer Show's coverage, to complement its professional reporting. "The Dow falling during the early part of the recession didn't translate to most listeners, while the listener submissions did," she says. "Suddenly, everyone had a place to go where they could share something." She says part of the challenge of a citizen journalism project is, frankly, "convincing professional journalists to hand over the microphone."

The show staff made it easy for listeners to participate. Even though the project photos were hosted on a Flickr site, listeners didn't have to register with Flickr: they could submit videos directly through a box on the project home page. Schreffler also emphasizes that budgetary limits forced them to be resourceful, especially taking advantage of free web-based tools such as Google Maps or their YouTube group page.

From Youtube
From Youtube

Common courtesy also plays a critical role: Schreffler emphasizes that it's absolutely critical to publicly acknowledge listeners' contributions and effort, whether through a mention on the web site or events such as the one where the best listener-generated videos on "Uncommon Indicators" were screened and honored.

Schreffler advises that you make certain that if you launch a crowdsourcing initiative during regular programming, you maintain a database of contributors (especially those with special skills) so that you can reach out directly to them in a disaster. She points out that on her own time she has learned how to create an Ushahidi site, so that in a disaster she'd be able to come forward and contribute her services.

The combination of mobile devices and social media also have the potential to transform coverage of a disaster into a new hybrid that combines the best of professional journalism and web-enabled "citizen journalism." [15]

Because the emergent behavior discussed earlier is commonplace in disasters, this hybrid form will be referred to in the remainder of this document as "emergent journalism." [16]

It is the social aspect of the new media that would facilitate this change: as organizations that have begun using wikis internally have found, when there is a platform that allows people who have a wide range of background, experience and perspective to contribute and share information, what results is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts: a combination of interchange, debate, and removal of arbitrary distinctions about the value of anyone's contributions based on their position leads to a synthesis and new insights that no individual, no matter how bright or experienced, could have come up with.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this phenomenon is Intellipedia, the secure wiki established in the wake of 9/11 to allow "flatter" sharing of data within the intelligence community. It uses the same open-source software used by Wikipedia, allowing intelligence analysts to share information through the federal government's classified Intelink intranet site. While most Intellipedia use is never seen by the public, one example of the platform's ability to quickly share and evaluate information was when New York Yankees pitcher Corry Liddle's plane crashed into an apartment building. Analysts from a variety of agencies issued 80 information updates within two hours, including a finding that it was not a terrorist attack. [17]

Most examinations of "citizen journalism" to date have examined it as a phenomenon that is distinct from the work done by professional journalists, but what if public radio stations could actually integrate this crowdsourced information with its own resources, and if there was actual dialogue with the contributors? That could result in a new kind of coverage similar to the emergent behavior that the researchers have documented in disaster response: "emergent journalism."

This would seem particularly relevant in a disaster, when a station's news staff, no matter what the size, would be quickly overwhelmed by the volume of information, and, in many cases, the need to monitor a wide geographic area.

Don't forget that, even if they have never met in the physical world, many of your listeners may already know each other through social networks that may range from Twitter to the comment streams on your station's website.

When a disaster happens, the social media don't just allow emergent behavior to happen, they actually foster it, because these virtual communities instantly spring into action, and are able to act collaboratively even more rapidly than we've seen strangers do in past disasters. Reliable leaders who consistently provide valuable information (researchers term them "High Yield Twitterers" [18] ) may have already been identified and are looked to by others while some may be quite happy to simply repeat information to their own networks, etc. Each plays a role. And, as disaster researcher Leysia Palen points out, members of these virtual social networks who may be thousands of miles from the disaster often contribute valuable information as well. [19]

Analyses of crowdsourced information using social media in past disasters has shown that much of the information gathered and shared through these social networks is the classic who, what, when, why and how that trained journalists contribute. [20]

However, what won't happen in a vacuum will be these citizen journalists automatically observing principles of traditional journalism, such as attributing sources or recording significant details that would enrich the coverage.

5.1. The challenge in setting up an emergent journalism process

The challenge is for public radio stations to reach out to their members/listeners who might be interested in providing such information in a disaster, and jointly to develop guidelines and procedures for collecting and submitting this information. In addition, they can jointly explore ways that dialogue through the social media can help both parties work together, under extremely difficult circumstances, to create reliable and informative coverage that would combine the best elements of traditional and crowdsourced [21] journalism. Having done that, the framework will be in place for "emergent journalism" to occur during a disaster.

The remainder of this document will outline suggested principles and best practices for an emergent journalism initiative (should you choose to launch one at your station); evaluate how various mobile devices and social media applications could be used to gather and distribute valuable information in a disaster; and consider some of the issues that need to be addressed collaboratively for an effective program to result.

[15] The emergent journalism concept is strongly influenced by the work of Associate Prof. Leysia Palen and her associates at the University of Colorado's EPIC Project.

[16] The distinction between a citizen journalism program and "emergent journalism" as visualized here is that the latter would try to actually synthesize the contributions of citizen and professional journalists instead of offering them as parallel sources of information.

[17] ODNI Intellipedia. The Collaboration Project.

[18] Sarah Vieweg, Amanda L. Hughes, Kate Starbird, & Leysia Palen. Oklahoma Grassfires & Red River Floods. connectivIT Lab, Technology, Media & Society Program (ATLAS) Computer Science Department University of Colorado, Boulder CO. Proceedings of the 28th international conference on Human factors in computing systems, 2010.

[19] Leysia Palen. Online Social Media in Crisis Events. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3 (July–September 2008)

[20] Vieweg, Hughes, Starbird & Palen, op. cit.

[21] Crowdsourcing refers to the practice of inviting the public to perform a task (such as news gathering) normally done by employees and/or trained specialists.

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Chapter 4. Devices and social media apps for disasters  Table of Contents  Chapter 6. Emergent Journalism Process