Monday, 14 January 2008

Citizen Journalism: Save Your Hay

"Save Your Hay"? Of course I mean "Have Your Say." Have Your Say is what the BBC calls the reader interaction area on its Web site. It's a delightfully British name: to the point, non-threatening, human. Though internally the BBC bandies about the expression "user-generated content"--aka UGC (one of the ugliest acronyms out there; just look at the way you have to twist your mouth to form those sounds)--to its credit it doesn't use that jargony term when inviting the public to participate. "Have your say," it says. And you do.

What does it mean that the public is invited to participate? All sorts of things, some of which were touched on last week in a speech by the head of the Beeb's newsroom, Peter Horrocks. Most noticeably, he said, the public can be quite nasty. Many of the comments in the Have Your Say forum after the murder of Benazir Bhutto were of the "Islam sucks" variety.

"The vehemence and the unanimity of these opinions against the Muslim religion were striking," Horrocks said, and the BBC briefly considered pulling down its comment board. If it had, it would have been accused of inviting free speech only to stifle it. Since it didn't, it could be accused of condoning intolerant speech. (The Washington Post has had similar debates about the propriety of its comments, as the paper's ombudsman wrote in a column last week.)

Horrocks is thinking beyond just what message the comments might send to those who read them, though. He's also concerned about what the BBC should do with them, that is, what are the news implications? Does the preponderance of negative comments mean more people are anti-Muslim than we think, or that BBC reporters should rethink the way they cover Pakistan or immigration or religion?

Not necessarily, he decided: "Rather than playing a numbers game to drive our agenda I instead encourage our teams to look for thoughtful or surprising views and opinions [in the forums]. In other words we still need to be journalistic with this material, as we would with any other source."

I think that's the right response. After all, "It's the journalism, stupid." But what are the journalistic implications of forums and, more broadly, of user-generated content? That's a vague question with a big, sprawling answer--or collection of answers.

The BBC does more than almost anyone in this arena. The Have Your Say portion of its Web site includes forums; it invites readers to send in pictures and raw video; it asks for input on specific articles that are in the reporting stage, in search of sources; it posts stories ("Your Stories") inspired by users. The UGC operation sifts through the comments and e-mails to see what should be sent on for use by other BBC journalists. There is a 20-minute weekly TV show, "Your News," that runs on the BBC's News 24 digital channel and is based on user-generated ideas.

More than two dozen people work in the BBC's interactive department, and at any one time a 13-person unit called the Hub is sifting through the tsunami of incoming submissions. E-mails are forwarded, images are categorized. Have Your Say editors set up and moderate forum debates. Some 10,000 items come in every day. Horrocks pointed out that though this number is impressive it represents fewer than 1 percent of the 5 million people who visit the BBC Web site every day. (That may not be strictly true; I understand Cardiff University will release some updated numbers soon.) It's a self-selecting group of BBC users with all the opportunity for bias that suggests.

One of the things I always wonder about the citizen journalism efforts of large, mainstream media outfits such as the BBC is: Why? What is the factor that spurs such an investment? Is it to wring some journalistic worth out of the torrent of submissions? Or is it to give the public the impression that they are wanted as more than mere recipients, that they are being taken inside the tent--to engage in conversation, not listen to a monologue, as Dan Gillmor might put it?

The BBC says it's the former. But, with 10,000 inputs day, this is journalism on the factory-farm scale. Many of the people who commented on Horrocks's speech pointed out that it's almost impossible to wade through hundreds of comments. Are those comments there to inform the people reading them or to please the people writing them?

Also, it's not always clear how readers or viewers should interpret UGC. What, for example, makes a Your Story any different or better than a Their--that is, a BBC--Story. Are these stories that might have slipped through the cracks if citizens had not sent them to the BBC? Are they not a subtle argument that even the BBC is infallible? (Not necessarily a bad thing.) Are they the journalistic equivalent of Dr. Johnson's female preacher/hind-leg walking dog: not done well but impressive for being done at all.

Still, I think it's right that the BBC has invested so heavily in Have Your Say. Even if it is the journalistic equivalent of mechanically-reclaimed meat, nuggets of value will surface regularly. It puts in place a structure that comes into its own when there is a big breaking news story: a natural disaster, a coup, a terrorist attack. And no less importantly it sends the message that a seemingly opaque organization cares enough about its readers (or viewers or listeners) that it wants to hear from them. This is vital at a time when the public's trust in the media is lower than the Marianas Trench.

Besides, the trash-to-treasure ratio of the UGC selected for display on a mainstream news site is probably no worse than that of the overall news site itself. Those who vehemently oppose citizen journalism would do well to remember just how bad some professional journalism is.

What of the future? Vicky Taylor, head of the BBC's interactive department, envisions a time when the Hub isn't processing only comments, photos and the odd shaky cellphone video. She can see the Have Your Say site hosting citizen-produced video of a more professional nature, a BBC YouTube, if you will.

"That can’t stand alone," she told me. "Everything has to work with everything else. But I personally have no problem if somebody can produce a really good form themself that has a piece to camera in it and there’s a narrative. Then you can run that as a film. Or we can give them the tools to do audio slide shows, that type of thing. And we run them on our site."

It would be the video equivalent of their message boards: blanketed with disclaimers that this or that video package doesn't represent BBC policy or adhere to BBC standards, but posted with the belief that a viewer somewhere will be interested in it.

"I don’t see a problem with that," she said.

There are some journalists who, having their say, would say that goes to far. I'm convinced, though, that you'll never know if you've gone too far until you've gone far enough.


mark from alexandria said...

I think that the concept is a positive one. Having gone through the painful process of getting a Letter to the Editor published in the Washington Post, I am in favor of any more straightforward approaches to giving individuals their say.

That said, it does run the risk of getting some hateful streams, but that is present just about everywhere on the web. In fact "coming from a place of hate" has become a code word in some circles for views that diverge from the popular (usually left leaning) view. I had bought into the concept until I found myself on the other end of the stick and had that used on me...being assured that my own views were, of course, not from a place of hate but that "most people taking that position are coming from a place of hate." The more speech that is out there, the more ideas that may come from them. That is a good thing.

I think we are still in the infancy of these communication forms and will have an interesting ride.

Henry said...

It's reassuring to me that the BBC should be at the forefront of this. On the one hand, it seems to run counter to the "make them eat broccoli" paternalism of Lord Reith, who famously wrote of his audience: "few know what they want, and very few know what they need." On the other hand, it's fitting that a publicly-funded broadcaster should try to be most in touch with what the public thinks. It'll be interesting to see how they try to strike the balance between letting people rant and exercising too much editorial control. But as Reith also said (later in the same paragraph) "It is better to over-estimate the mentality of the public than to under-estimate it." (Of course, he may have said that before he saw "Top Gear"!)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, John, but "UGC" is not an acronym. It's only an initialism. An acronym is an initialism that has vowels and can be pronounced as a psuedo-word, thus providing a pseudo-noun that can stand in for the name of the entity represented by the initialism. (And please don't reply, as Gene Weingarten once did to me, "Whatever, Nerdlinger.")

Candadai Tirumalai said...

The BBC's "Have Your Say" has a feature which enables readers to recommend the comments which have been posted. This sometimes leads to the popular forum equivalent of demagoguery and grandstanding, where some seek to attract as many recommendations as possible.
One reader complained that the forum had been systematically taken over by people of a particular political stripe. Other readers have protested that the moderators censor views unacceptably. "Have Your Say" does have unmoderated forums, however.

Richard said...

Mark reminds me that Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press can be antipathetic: persuading an editor to publish a letter in a newspaper is an example of the two clashing. Yougeesee (euch!) is an example of Press freedom being used to promote genuine freedom of expressoin

MEB said...

UGC is not an acronym unless you can pronounce that C at the end, which I suppose you could if you made it a soft C ;) It's an abbreviation. An acronym has to be a pronounceable word.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Who knew about the acronyms? Does that mean that CIA, NSA, FBI, etc., are not acronyms at all? I've been calling them by the wrong name all this time....

As long as the BBC is paying someone to wade through the UGC to find the worthwhile nuggets, it's a great idea. Unfiltered UGC? Blecch.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Just think, unfiltered UCG's might look like the comments on this blog. Shocking. At least someone posting a comment is making an active contribution as opposed to sitting there on the couch, like the proverbial potato, watching TV.

Henry, may I quote our son at age two: "I want-it-I-need-it!" We used to ask the poor lad when he said he wanted something, like seconds on ice cream, whether he really needed it. He learned to merge the 2 into every request, like the average TV viewer.

This perhaps is the new generation BBC, doling out gems like middle aged men driving cars fast on the public dime (see John's "Drive, He Said" Jan 7.) Can't we expect more from the BBC? BBC You Tube? It sounds like a joke.

Still, points to the BBC for trying to ride the world wide web rather than drowning in the surf.