The media, democracy and interaction design: How citizen journalism apps signal a radical change for the future of society

Since the dawn of the Personal Computer there’s been a great deal of discussion within media circles about how to best exploit the proliferation of computer-based technologies. In more recent history, web 2.0 (and now 3) and social media have been incredibly disruptive to media organisations by fragmenting audiences and eroding revenue streams through the creation of a more competitive media environment.

But like television – and radio and print before that – traditional media organisations have continued to experiment with these new mediums in an effort to modernise. From hypertext, to the scalable multimedia articles pioneered by The New York Times’ ‘Snow Fall’ design, to gamified news, data journalism, news-mapping and citizen journalism apps, the tools journalists use to tell a story have expanded exponentially.

Whereas many argue that utilising these new platforms will save traditional media organisations – and there’s little doubt technology will be at the heart of journalistic practice in the future – the inseparability of social media from technology and society itself has changed the terms of citizen engagement in signalling an end to the media of old. There were certainly unheralded concerns when television came along that print and radio would become obsolete, and while computer-based technology hasn’t exactly killed old mediums as of yet, it has fundamentally transformed perceptions of what a healthy media environment should look like (Picard 2014: 507). The media can only survive if there’s a particular focus on the potential for interactivity, collaboration and engagement, along with the radical shift in mindsets this entails. Because of this, interaction design that centres around facilitating citizen journalism is unique in that it implies the current media environment is profoundly unable to meet the new standards set by a networked society, and that the media’s new toolkit can be used against it to change the status quo.

The concept of the ‘Fourth Estate’ has long been central to democracy – and indeed journalists’ self-perceptions – yet it often seems as if this tenet of the media is being forgotten in the new world discussed above. Falling revenues and job cuts in local newsrooms, along with a lack of trust in the media, a disconnect between the public and professional journalists, a focus on only the ‘biggest’ stories as deemed by editors, and the ‘PR-itization’ of the media and politics have all left local courts, councils, parliaments, executives and administrators worryingly unaccountable (Franklin 2012: 670). Government and media hierarchies have only been consolidated in the digital age, and ‘top-down’ journalism has been perpetuated through journalists shaping their coverage “in such a way as to guarantee the future flow of information” (Caldwell 2013: 5). This is in spite of assertions that the borderline separating professional journalists from their audience is blurring (Domingo et al. 2008: 326) – in reality, audience participation in creating meaningful news has been limited (Franquet, Villa & Bergillos, 2011), and thus far a shift in journalists from ‘gatekeepers’ to ‘gatewatchers’ hasn’t occurred (Kammer 2013: 115). Indeed, Conboy & Eldridge argue that “journalism has proved itself conservative both conceptually and in its appropriation of technology. Its engagement with the public has become more opaque over time and its rhetorical dependence on eighteenth and nineteenth-century ideals have become increasingly detached from contemporary reality” (2014: 4). More than a crisis in journalism, the above phenomena have also brought about what could be considered a crisis in democracy.

Consequently, when tasked with solving a journalistic dilemma through the creation of an interaction design and social and mobile computing prototype, it seemed appropriate to tackle these fundamental problems head-on. The resulting design artefact, ‘Public Record’, was conceived as a citizen journalism app that would pin local political events to a Google Maps-like interface, with its primary aim being to engage the community with local governments, unions, interest groups and political parties through involving them in the media process. As such, it allows citizens to converse with professional journalists and politicians at events, and provides comprehensive background information in order to encourage users to attend events, contribute news and discuss local issues that matter. On reflection, Public Record suggests a future for journalism that goes beyond the media simply telling new forms of stories through technology – it’s one where citizens use technology to take over the role of the Fourth Estate, holding both government and the media to account.

From this stems a key argument about the use of interaction design and social and mobile computing by journalists – to use this technology to simply perpetuate traditional ‘one-way’, ‘top-down’ approaches to journalism won’t save the media industry, and would be a grave mistake indeed (Bowman & Willis 2003: 54). People aren’t necessarily sick of the mediums with which stories are told, they just don’t feel they can be truly engaged by and involved in current media organisations who continue to preserve the old flow of information. Moreover, social media and broader technologies haven’t brought about a crisis in journalism because of slow technological adaption, they’ve brought about a crisis because the media have been slow to adapt philosophically.

The ongoing top-down approach of the media is exemplified by the continued use of ‘the official voice of journalism’ – speaking formally, without colour and attitude, in order to present an objective and balanced account of events (even when that may not be the case). With this disconnect, it’s easy for the public to forget journalists are human beings with opinions, emotions and personal lives with which they can identify. As Bowman & Willis assert, “journalists think trust equals accuracy. But it’s about much more: passion, genuineness, integrity. Honest conversation and passionate collaboration could instil respect and trust into the relationship between both parties” (2003: 53). This isn’t to argue that a change of style would solve the media’s problems, nor even substance, it’s simply to acknowledge that journalists continue to present themselves as an authority, talking down to their audience. With large numbers of educated, engaged and vocal citizens in the Western world – people who aren’t willing to let media elitists talk down to them anymore – self-perceptions of journalists being privileged educators “by steering the unkempt masses away from dangerous ideologies and undesirable actions” (Picard 2014: 507) must change.

There’s certainly plenty of evidence that suggests people really do want to be more engaged and involved in the media and political processes (see Mitchell et al. 2014; Smith 2013; Chen & Vromen 2012; Picard 2014). Citizen journalism site Youdecide, for example, attracted broad contributions relating to the 2007 election campaign (Flew & Wilson 2007), and its all-too-common for people create, share and have heated debates through social media. This year, Melbourne University attracted 10,000 students to its free, eight-week online course ‘Journalism Skills for Engaged Citizens’ (Nancarrow 2015), and the State Library of Queensland has hosted CitizenJ, allowing citizens to be trained, hire out equipment, and be published. Yet open-source citizen journalism apps like Apparazzi, Mereporter and Fresco News, as well as apps from organisations like CNN, the BBC, RTVE and the Guardian, have all failed to gain a substantial contributor base. While apps and websites from organisations have been limited due to contributions being separate from day-to-day reporting and subject to editorial judgement (Franquet, Villa & Bergillos, 2011), the same can’t be said for their open-source counterparts. So does this mean that citizen journalism is nothing but an academic dream, and that the status quo of the media and democracy will continue?

Perhaps Public Record’s biggest differentiator is that it aims to facilitate true engagement with the media and political processes, as opposed to people simply uploading photos or videos, or contributing news of lesser importance. It encourages everyday people to demand access to the media and politicians in the public interest, and that it presents background information in order to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute is key – indeed, using data journalism and text analytics to further distil this information down into more accessible content could certainly encourage greater contributions. Further, taking inspiration from Melbourne University and apps like StoryMaker, it’s also vital that an app like Public Record incorporates training in order to break down barriers between citizen and professional journalists. In essence, Public Record needs to be a complete, open and transparent online newsroom for people to be a part of. Early iterations of such an app could become a key tool for journalists to get closer to their community and to better collaborate them. Indeed, greater collaboration is key to being a good journalist in the future – they won’t be required to simultaneously be multimodal storytellers, applied social scientists and technologically savvy operators with the help of programmers, designers and hackers, along with the scientists, economists, bankers and nutritionists who are already used to give stories authority (Van der Haak, Parks & Castells 2012). This collaborative approach could create a future with greater specialization within the field of journalism – something that’s been sorely lacking in recent times.

Bowman & Willis see this future of collaboration as one where the audience can “judge the principles by which journalists do their work. (Let people) finally see how the sausage is made – how we do our work and what informs our decisions” (Bowman & Willis 2003: 54). In this regard, journalists have the potential further their profession and be part of the cultural change in allowing an audience to judge journalistic work on its merits and standards. As Taylor & Cokley suggest, “it has historically been the responsibility of journalists to inform democracy, however, their future success now relies not only upon how well they continue to carry out this responsibility but how well they encourage and facilitate conversations with citizens” (2013: 5). But if media organisations are unwilling to properly engage and involve citizens in the news-making process, they’ll undoubtedly be replaced – it’s important to remember that “journalism does not have profitability as a primary goal, but rather, the production of reliable information and analysis needed for the adequate performance of a democratic society. The crisis of the traditional business models of journalism will not affect the public interest overall” (Van der Haak, Parks & Castells 2012: 2295). If traditional media organisations don’t fill this need, others – and if necessary, citizens – will. As Picard notes, “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: 507).

Scalable apps, HTML 5 websites, virtual reality, holograms, graphics engines and user interfaces – along with the required coding – are incredibly important for journalists to present their material in new (and yes, more collaborative, interactive, and engaging) ways. Yet true collaboration, interactivity and engagement can only be brought about if these modern tools are used to create news from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down. Indeed, “an involved audience can play the role of a scalable virtual staff. Collaborating with them enables media to be and go where they normally cannot, due to geography or cost” (Bowman & Willis 2003: 55). Undoubtedly, creating the view within journalists, politicians and citizens themselves that everyone can be a valuable contributor to the news and politics requires the work of a passionate and devoted team to lay the groundwork. There needs to be convincing arguments and a change in mindsets about how society works in the new networked world. To a large extent, this attitude mirrors that of many news startups, throwing economics out the window, building in risk and accentuating a normative need for transparency (Carlson & Usher, 2015: 13) while disrupting professional journalism (Christensen, Skok & Allworth 2012).

To continue the status quo would be a missed opportunity to reshape society and create a healthier future, and for journalists and media organisations to hinder this progress would go against everything those involved in the media should stand for – journalism, after all, belongs to all of society.