While there’s certainly a lot of cynicism regarding the media and politics (Conboy & Eldridge, 2014. Wayne & Murray, 2009), the sharing of political articles, memes (Bronwyn Bishop, for example) and heated discussions, as well as online political protest like e-petitions and mass-emails – or even real-world protests organized through social media like ‘March in March’ – shows us that people want to be more engaged and involved in media and political processes.
Indeed, both journalism and politics are inextricably linked and of utmost importance to democracy, but it can be hard to verify fact from fiction, genuine news from propaganda – particularly in the online realm. Online debates can likewise become unhelpfully emotional, but journalists and politicians can overestimate boredom, self-display or the venting of anger and frustration as reasons for this form of participation (Schmidt & Loosen, 2015, p.275), and underestimate citizens’ desire for knowledge and true involvement.
With only the biggest State or Federal political stories generally making the news (Martin, 2015; Lynch, 2015) and job cuts, predominately across newsrooms in regional areas (Gordon & Thompson, 2015; Alcorn, 2015), coverage of and engagement in issues that truly affect the local community is becoming things of the past. People want to be more engaged in their local community, the media and politics that actually affects them, but are being let down by current political and journalistic practices. For the average Joe, covering press conferences, parliament, meetings can be daunting or simply inaccessible because of journalist exclusivity, and that’s if people can find where and when these events are. Convoluted government websites and endless emails greet anyone who dares to get involved. Journalists and politicians can appear unapproachable and untrustworthy, and the institutions they work in opaque. A lack of interactivity has led many to become disillusioned with traditional media and politicking, or disengaged entirely. Both professions suffer as a result.
Public Record is a web app designed to solve this problem, informing citizens and engaging them with their local community and the media process. It pins the location of political events in an individual’s local area, based largely around the analysis of material such as press releases, and government, union, interest group, political party and community websites. It provides comprehensive background information, live broadcasts and transcripts, and encourages users to contribute articles and have discussions about these events. It’s good for citizens, journalists and politicians who want to discuss local issues and get closer to their community, and facilitates what political theorists call ‘deliberative democracy’ (Krstić, 2013, p. 427), making political news more interactive, relevant, transparent and accountable, and politicians and journalists more approachable and trustworthy.
In the political sphere, online media applications have become useful tools for mapping out timelines of debates and speeches, and measuring public reactions. The data to the right (Mitchell et al, 2014) shows that social media platforms are increasingly being used to source information on political and governmental activities in the US in 2014, with Facebook being the number one site that online users relied on for receiving such news. It also, however, shows people still value and rely predominately on local news services (which remain relatively strong in America), as opposed to larger news organisations.
IVN statistics (Susskind, 2014) also shows there’s a growing percentage of people who are getting involved in the political process via social media.
In Australia, the AEC (Chen & Vromen, 2013) statistics below show that social media is on the rise as a platform for consuming political media, but importantly also shows a marked decrease in the media overall since the 1980’s.
The rise of social media has certainly had the effect of helping to create so-called ‘citizen journalism’, however people continue to use these platforms to primarily share and discuss news as opposed to being creators of content. Mobile devices have become a common way for citizens to source information and data, and in 2009 CNN launched their official mobile app iReport that allowed users to be part of the news production process through production tools such as photo and video capturing. The BBC and KTVE have likewise tried to increase audience content creation through their websites, however all these apps and services are generally separate from an organisation’s day-to-day reporting, can be technologically and practically limiting, are still subject to editorial judgement, and are rarely used to create serious, meaningful news (Franquet, Villa & Bergillos, 2011). As Franquet, Villa & Bergillos discuss, “if media operators, especially public service broadcasters, want to build a better online communication with their audience and establish a fruitful arena for opinion exchange, they need to create more transparent tools of participation and enable an improved online space of opinion exchange between users and journalists” (2011, p. 239).
Despite assertions that the borderline separating professional journalists from their audience is blurring (Domingo et al, p. 326), and “the traditional functions of bearing witness, holding to account, opinion leadership, and shaming are no longer provided solely by the news media” (Picard, 2014), Kammer notes that “the audiences’ actual opportunities for assuming such a selecting and editing role is most often highly constrained when it takes place within the framework of established news websites. Here, audience participation is primarily possible in the shape of audience comments and similar interpretational categories where ordinary people react to the news that has already been produced” (2013, p. 114). Because of this, he questions whether the changing role of journalists as ‘gatekeepers’ to ‘gatewatchers’ has actually occurred (2013, p. 115). With a decrease in local news, as well as the ideas of ‘gatewatching’, ‘bearing witness’, and ‘holding to account’ in mind, nowhere is it more difficult – yet also of fundamental importance – to get involved in media processes than in the political realm.
For a long time, journalists have carried the duty of distributing news that is classified within the public interest. This includes understanding what is within the public interest, and delivering reports that are fair, honest and accurate (MEAA, 2013). Since the birth of the Internet, this focus has not shifted, but rather expanded the responsibilities of a journalist and associated institutions. They include engaging larger audiences through interactivity, fulfilling citizen journalists’ needs and creating online communities. Furthermore, as the speed of technology is increasing, so are the standards for journalism. This includes generating a high level of verification, transparency and accuracy.
As Picard points out “we are entering a period in which journalism is being perceived by the public as too important to be left passively to commercial news organizations, editors, and employed journalists. This is a healthy development because journalism does not belong to journalists and news organizations: it belongs to all of society” (2014, p. 507). Moreover, he argues that “to assume that quality journalism cannot be practised outside large enterprises defies history and denigrates the contributions of the multitude of independent and freelance journalists who have covered society and the world for nearly three centuries” (2014, p.20).
While it’s clear there’s a lot of academic research and statistical data that supports the creation of Public Record, we also conducted surveys and interviewed of people from different backgrounds and interests in the political sphere that backs this up. For example, we asked respondents if they used social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to obtain information on political matters. The results showed that over 80 per cent did.
In an interview, a university student shared that social media was an effective tool for becoming engaged in political matters. He said that Twitter and Facebook were amongst them. However, another claimed that Facebook is ‘the worst place for political discussion’ and that it ‘doesn’t belong there’. He believed that social media sites are for social networking and that political debates would lose all credibility. In another survey response, a large majority believed that on a scale from one to five the accuracy and transparency of such information was low.
We also asked respondents how interested they were in the media and politics, and how much involvement they can currently have in these processes. Results back up the academic research, with people being interested, but not feeling they can really get involved or are being engaged by the media and politicians.
The survey also showed that many are concerned about regional news services and the impact this may have on the community. Throughout interviews, people often felt that even ‘local’ news didn’t fully cover what was really important.
In another interview, an interviewee shared that he had trouble sourcing political information through official institutional sites and would encourage the creation of an app that would make the information sourcing process easier. This was a recurring theme throughout our research, with many finding political websites and information convoluted. While we toyed with the idea of having a calendar filled with events, our audience felt mapping would be more simple, interactive and engaging for end users, and hence this became a key design decision.
When it came to development of the prototype a number of decisions need to be made in regards to how it would be built and what technology would be used to do so. As data was going to have to be stored for the system to function correctly (events, articles, comments, etc.) a database would be required, and as such the frontend would have to be built with a framework or system that could support database interactions. Angular JS, React JS, and standard PHP were the different systems that were considered for developing the application and offered different advantages and disadvantages. Angular and React both offered methods of dynamically generated content that could easily write to a database and update information on screen immediately. However, PHP was chosen to develop the prototype the due the familiarity the team had with the language and quickly it could be implement under the time constraints.
In regards to the functionality of the application itself a map was required to display the events in a manner which was suitable, so to fill this role Google Maps was chosen due to it being the largest and mostly readily supported mapping API and also being very easy to integrate and work with. Its abilities to customise the appearance of the map with different colours, highlights, labels, markers, etc. made it perfect from a graphical standpoints and the marker system fitted the needs of the application with a minor issue to do with marker proximity and display. A potential solution for display markers at the same or very similar locations that still fits the required specifications of needing to be able to distinguish each event is Overlapping Marker Spiderfier (MacKerron, 2013). This sets markers to move apart when a marker located at a location is clicked and allows for each individual marker to be clicked. As such it was planned to be incorporated into the prototype and would be used if the application was to develop further. Alongside the map, to make the application more graphically appealing through animations and to make scripting interactions easier the jQuery library is used.
Public Record starts off like many other applications of it’s kind, with a simple login page displaying the logo and a standard login field. This screen works synchronously as a sign in as well as a the splash page for our project, presenting the logo and title of the application for front before they venture to the rest of the site. For the purpose of the application we decided it was necessary to incorporate a login/signup functionality to encourage users to provide an identity for their actions. As such there is no setting available to users which allows them to post information anonymously.
After logging in the user is presented with a map centered on their locality based on their sign up information provided earlier. The map can be zoomed in and out of or panned about to view other area’s around Australia. Initially the map is set to provide information for the current month of events, however users can navigate to the calendar button located at the top right of the page to open a calendar view, which can be used to toggle between events in the database to be displayed on the map.
Each marker on the map represents an event in the database which has either already passed or has not commenced yet, with orange markers indicating the former and blue markers showing the later. On interacting with a marker a small pop-up appears which provides general information on the event, such as the title, involved parties(e.g Labor), date/time of commencement and the exact location of the event.
After pressing the ‘View Event’ link the user is then directed to the discussion thread for the event. The linked information is different depending on the type of event you view. If the event has already occurred then a link to the agenda of the event is available as well as a link to a transcript or a broadcast depending on what’s available. Events that haven’t already transpired are set out in a similar manner, except they don’t provide a link to a broadcast or transcript for obvious reasons.
The main differences between the interactions of a transpired event and a non-transpired event are the discussion elements. One of the features of the discussion is the referenced article feature, which allows the user to reference a specific article as a backing source of information for their comments. A non-transpired event only allows the user to post discussion on the event as a whole and stops the ability to create individual threads of discourse, this promotes a healthy environment to focus on the actual facts of the event to come rather than harboring speculations. Concurrently a transpired event allows for the creation of multiple threads of conversation allowing for much broader debates on the facts of the completed event.
Looking to the future there are several important changes that need to be made to develop Public Record into a successful application. Firstly the current context of the application is limited to Central Brisbane, which for the purpose of the assessment was an applicable space to base off of. However Public Record can easily be adjusted to facilitate a much broader context, as such it is capable of expanding to a state or national level without any adjustments to the current implementation. If the application gains popularity and recognition as a trustworthy medium for political discussion, we could see political events handled in a much different way than they currently are. Public Record could easily develop into a tool which can be held by an official holding an event, who can then provide responses to questions asked by the general public. This would void any involvement of journalists and promote the act of citizen journalism.
The user interactions with the calendar and manipulating which dates the events which the user are viewing are from. There would need to be an indicator on the main screen which shows the user what dates they are viewing within. Also the system of dividing the different events via month should be scaled to be by week when the rest of the application is scaled in size so the user is not overwhelmed by the shear amount of events available for viewing on first use of the application. In conjunction with date filtering other such functionality, such as party filtering, is something that should be expanded upon. This would allow users to more easily access information that they are interested rather than having to sort through each map marker individually. In regards to browsing map markers and improving the usability of doing so the incorporation of tags above each map marker so the user can view the title, or snippet of the title, prior to viewing the event would greatly improve the UX of doing so.