User generated content – good or bad?

Last night I attended an interesting debate hosted by the Swedish Union of Journalists on the topic of citizen journalism – threat or opportunity. Maja Aase, chief editor of Journalisten, was moderating a panel consisting of Lotta Holmström, Aftonbladet; Thomas Mattsson, Expressen Nya Medier; Pnina Yavari Molin, Göteborgs-Posten and Rino Rotevatn, SVT.

The initial question was about whether user generated content (UGC) is a threat or not.

LH responded by asking ’threat – to whom’?

LH and TM were, not very suprisingly, more positive towards involving readers in the production of news and LH argued that UGC produces new topics to cover and make it possible for more voices to be heard. All in all it will make journalism better because “if we do something wrong we get to hear it immediately”.

PYM welcomed content from readers but wanted journalists to sort the good from the bad. She was worried that journalists are losing their “monopoly” as opinion leaders and told of an example from Göteborgs-Posten where Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bidlt refused to answer questions from a journalist and instead wrote a comment to the article on the site. TM thought that it was great that journalists’ monopoly disappeared. He argued that ten years ago Bildt would probably have used a press release instead and his refusal to answer questions should not be blamed on the fact that there now are blogs. TM also thought it was a mistake to call it citizen journalism (medborgarjournalistik) because it isn’t journalism, something that the others agreed with.

MA: Why is there such a huge interest in UGC right now?

RR said it was because it is cheap and money is the driving force behind this trend. He also meant that we should not forget about the positive effects this trend has for freedom of speech, but that it becomes a problem when UGC pushes out traditional journalism.

He also said that media risk running into problems with trust when they ask readers to send in their own photos. He gave an example from Karlstad where a person had to be moved off the scene of an accident by force because he stood in the way for the resuce personnel. The person said he had the right to be there to take photos and claimed to be working for a local newspaper, which he of course wasn’t.

LH said that there is also a debate about people who put themselves in danger to take such pictures, but it is still just a tiny part of UGC. And people would still use their camera phones even if media didn’t ask for photos.

RR gave another example of what people are willing to do to get attention online and/or by the media. A couple of people made a bomb that they detonated in a public place. They video taped the whole thing and put it up on YouTube and eventually got some publicity in the local paper.

MA: How do you control [the authenticity of] photos?

TM said that the problem of authenticity is bigger with the established distributors than with UGC (referring to AP for example) but that Expressen checks this material like everything else. He said that Expressen spend a significant amount on managing and monitoring UGC and that the motives are not to save money. PYM then made the reflection that “imagine how much ’good’ journalism these people could create”. TM commented that you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.

Then the discussion focused around blogs for a while and LH explained how she can determine if a blog i trustworthy or not. Blogs are most of the time not trying to be objective, so after a while a reader can make their own opinion of the writer and his or her credibility and bias. And this way of looking at a writer spills over to traditional media because readers will like to know who this journalist is, what are his preferences and so on. Traditional media will be exposed to an audience that has learned to be very critical.

RR agreed that the blogosphere can be a good source of material for media and that transparency and critisism is generally an area where media today are rather closed.

PYM said that media is lending its credibility to bloggers when for example bloggers are included on media sites.

MA: What kind of material from readers to you reject?

LH: Much of it is traditional op-eds because they have another place in the paper.

Then there was an interesting discussion regarding how to monitor comments and material online from readers. It is clear that most media sites moderate comments after publishing and that they are published on separate servers (databaser) that are not in the jurisdiction of the legally responsible person. In other words, comments are published on a server that is located in another country which would mean that they are not subject to Swedish freedom of speech laws (YGL).

All four panelists seemed to argue that the question whether citizen journalism is a threat or not boils down to one thing – credibility. But they approached the topic from two different angles. RR and PYM argued that the trust that readers have in traditional media is at stake and may be hurt if readers are too much involved in the production of news, especially if the different types of content is not clearly marked. It is important that journalists are still the gatekeepers that sort good from bad.

LH and TM on the other hand opined that if media didn’t open up for user content and transparency, then they will lose its credibility. And since the audience is getting used to being involved, this is simply a question of survival. If media fail to adjust to this new reality then readers will have no trust in journalism.

Journalism probably benefits from both these standpoints – one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas. However, parts of the debate seemed to circle around the opinion that if media do not include reader photos and other types of user content, then readers will never find it. In reality, of course, this is far from true. And this may be one of the bigger challenges for journalism. Citizens today have a number of alternative channels to find information, that are a complement to traditional media. If media hadn’t published user photos from the Asian tsunami, then we would have found them via Flickr sets, via blogs, via communities etc. So the question is probably more about how to include UGC, not if it should be.

Update: Andreas Aspegren comments too, in his very first blog post.

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