I’ve been thinking a bit recently about “citizen journalism” and its relationship with the mainstream media. “User generated content” is very trendy at the moment. I had expected that to happen, but it hasn’t turned out quite the way I expected it.
Some people seem dead set on framing the whole issue as some kind of colossal battle between the mainstream media and citizen journalism. But bloggers often depend on the mainstream media for its stories — with a few notable exceptions of course. And by the same token, the mainstream media depends on citizens more and more to send in images of big news events such as the London bombings.
This is all well and good, but unfortunately it has become a sickeningly trendy thing for news outlets to do now. Now every time a turkey sneezes it’s all, “Send us your pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org”, or even worse, “Have your say by recording yourself on your 3G phone.” I mean really. UGC has become a gimmick used by news channels to make them look all hip and cool.
Channel Five News seems particularly keen on the idea of citizen journalism. But they are so eager to push it forward that they end up completely missing the point. For one thing, one report I saw was an irredeemably dull item about cycle lanes. Not cycle lanes in general. Cycle lanes in one gentleman’s town.
Clearly, this man was quite concerned about cycle lanes (I can’t remember why, it was so boring). But what had obviously happened was that he emailed some special “Speak your brains” email address and some producer picked it up and said, “Great! That’s a really boring story, just like what them citizen journalists are into. Let’s do it!” And then they sent along a professional production crew and got this chap to talk about cycle lanes.
But that isn’t citizen journalism at all. The production crew probably made the decision that he would cheesily present the whole item in his cycling gear, riding down the cycle lanes and then “happening to bump into a camera” and mouth off about cycle lanes in a monotone fashion.
All they needed was a pointless two-way and that would have been it — citizen journalism becomes everything that’s bad about the mainstream media. Essentially it was a normal news report in every way, except that it was presented by somebody with little or no television experience. This is more like Points of View than blogging. In the blogosphere, this “story” about cycle lanes would never have attracted any attention whatsoever. Channel Five decided to put it on its prime time news programme.
The point for me about blogging is that normal-ish people have a big conversation. Sometimes they write about their own experiences and create their own stories about the world around them. People eventually find like-minded people and share their experiences, debate and have a conversation. Channel Five just took some guy with a hobby horse and plonked him in front of a camera.
Radio Five Live recently had some boring thing called “Your Five Live” or something. I think it lasted an entire week. And it was terrible. All week they were trailing a special debate to be. chaired by that voice of reason Stephen Nolan, about “the issue you told us concerned you the most”. Yes, you guessed it — immigration. That issue that seems to attract the regular Five Live phone-in callers but doesn’t seem to fuss people in the blogosphere that much.
I didn’t listen to the debate. I would probably have found it too depressing. It would have been a carnival of the knuckle-draggers. Maybe I am being a snob. Surely these are normal people who have every right to voice their opinion. Well, yes. But any old fool can rant down a microphone.
As I said, the point about blogging is that you have a proper discussion and a debate. Sometimes Five Live manages this, but more often it doesn’t. You just get somebody inflicting us with his verbal diarrhoea before being cut off by the presenter because it’s time for the news.
And just have a look at BBC News 24 or Sky News. Large chunks of the day are often dedicated to “Have your say” “debates”. What this actually means is numbskulls sending in emails and some editor somewhere picking the juiciest ones which a presenter then reads one line of. What you get is half a dozen emailers all of which have their own personal chips on their shoulder — but no conversation, no debate, no intelligence.
A new programme on Channel 4 caught my eye this weekend. It’s called Homemade, and it actually bills itself as YouTube for the television. People generate their own content and submit it to Channel 4. But once again this completely misses the point. The point about YouTube is that you decide for yourself what you want to watch.
Homemade is still put together by a bunch of television professionals who have chosen what they would like us to watch. The viewer gets no choice in the matter here. And we could especially do without the annoying Dave Berry presenting links between all of the clips.
All we have now is a rag-bag of items filmed on poor-quality cameras. Presumably the producers of Homemade thought the randomness and low quality images was what made YouTube popular. Well, not so. Most people just use YouTube to watch actual television programmes anyway.
The mainstream media needs to realise what user generated content can actually be useful for. At the moment, it is just a trendy gimmick — and its uses get more annoying by the week. People will always want television stations to create quality, big-budget programmes. If people wanted something home made they would watch YouTube, not Channel 4.
As for the news programmes, they need to be more aware that their job is to report the big news stories with expert analysis. If people wanted to know what people on the street thought, they would just read a blog. As things stand, user generated content on news programmes are toe-curlingly embarassing and always encourage me to switch off.
That is not to say that citizens can’t have an input in the news. Images of Concorde on fire and the inside of the bombed train in London genuinely added to the story, and professionals were not in a position to film these. That is the sort of cooperation between “citizens” and the “mainstream media” that can work brilliantly. The rest is just awful, gimmicky rubbish.
This post by Kevin Anderson is very interesting. The key quote:
The mainstream media believes that “user-generated content” has to come through their sites, their walled gardens of tightly controlled participation, so they miss the vastly larger opportunity that exists on the internet as a whole.