Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Participatory Journalism - From Reporting To Dialogue: An Italian Viewpoint

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"Unfortunately, I believe too many of us, editors and journalists, have lost contact with our readers. We often ask ourselves, "Do we have a story?" rather than asking, "Will someone be interested in reading this story?"

Photo credit: Billy Ray

And it goes on.

"News providers had better get web-savvy, stop lecturing their audiences, become places for conversation and destinations where bloggers and podcasters congregate to engage our reporters and editors in more extended discussions."

These aren't sentences found on an indymedia forum but words taken from a speech given by the biggest media magnate in the world, Rupert Murdoch at the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 13th.

Presenting his audience with the apocalyptic premonitions found in Philip Meyer's book, "The Vanishing Newspaper", which says that if readers continue to diminish at the current rate, we'll be throwing out our last print newspaper in April, 2040, Murdoch invited editors to look at the behavior and the questions of the reader of the future.

"What is happening, in short, is a revolution in the way young people access information. They don't want to depend on figure similar to a divinity who tells them what is important. They want a point of view on facts, not just what happened, but why it happened. They want new stories to speak to them directly, something that relates to their lives. They want to be able to use that information in a broader community, they want to discuss, ask questions and meet other people who hold the same or opposite views of the world."

Photo credit: Robin Good

What the head of the News Corporation stated is what, according to the weekly magazine The Economist, the future of journalism will be.

The places to look for the way information will be produced and consumed in the digital world are blogs, wikis and online newspapers written with the contribution of citizens, just like the Korean OhMyNews.

This is at least what promoters of the so-called "participatory journalism" (also known as "citizen journalism" and "open source journalism") have been preaching for a long time now, and among them are not only bloggers and amateur reporters, but established journalists like Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, author of the book, We the Media, and Mark Potts, co-founder of the Washington Post's online edition, now head of, a brand which brings together innovative information and service portals at the local level, with all contents produced by its users. is a good place to find the definition of participatory journalism, "None of us knows as much as all of us."

Another way of summing up Dan Gillmor's motto could be, "My readers, collectively, know more than I do."

Put simply, it is the production model of open source software, where voluntary collaboration between a large number of programmers and users come together to create software capable, at times, to compete against software products from big multinationals.

Perhaps the best model of open-source information publishing is Wikipedia, the biggest encyclopedia in the world.

Created in 2001 by a Californian entrepreneur named Jimmy Wales, its name is derived from Wiki software, and it was created to allow a number of users to collaborate in creating content.

Wikipedia is entirely written by users, who not only have the opportunity to create entries from scratch, but can also modify any already present entry. With this approach, more than 1,700,000 entries have been created in more than 190 languages by 51,106 registered users for an average of 3,758 new articles per day.

How can an encyclopedia such as this one be considered reliable?

In emerging debates regarding the credibility of Wikipedia as a source of encyclopedic knowledge, most of the objections arise from the extended use of participative forms of content production and editing. Without central authority on published content and without the process of expert, editorial revision, the information published on Wikipedia is unreliable, according to canons used by the most accredited encyclopedias.
But the answer to these objections is that Wikipedia relies on a different mechanism, such as controls made by readers, who have the chance to correct false information or add more in-depth news.

By using Linus' Law, which is the basis of the productive process of open-source software, Wikipedia's motto states, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow", meaning given a large enough beta tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be identified quickly and fixed by someone.

The control on content quality exercised by the Wikipedia community seems to be successful, if anything, in eliminating acts of vandalism, like the deletion of whole entries, or entries with indecencies and insults. Wiki software keeps all prior revisions of a single article in its archive, so that reverting to an older versions of any article is just a click away, and thus, articles are well and easily protected from tampering.

A study conducted on Wikipedia by a group of IBM researchers showed that half of all completely deleted entries are neutralized in 3 minutes, while half of all vulgar interventions are modified in 2 minutes. These facts demonstrate the community's ability to control and intervene in the editorial process, but it still doesn't say much about the reliability of entries generated by the same. On the other hand, articles found in Wikipedia are now regularly cited by the media and also by scientific magazines such as Science.

Besides being completely free and having high exposure and visibility within Google search results (due to the numerous internal links between entries), Wikipedia's success is due to the fast updates made by a large number of individuals who consistently fill in a longstanding gap in knowledge, described as, "The general absence of information sources in the time between the publication of news stories and the writing of history books." The awareness and discovery of major information reporting gaps offered by traditional media seems indeed to increasingly spur participatory journalism.

The Wikimedia Foundation which manages Wikipedia, has recently launched Wikinews, an information site based upon rules very similar to those utilized for its collaborative encyclopedia. It is probably still too early to make a final evaluation of this project, whose main difficulty derives from the fact that while in a encyclopedic format there's always plenty of time to improve existing entries and to write new ones, the fast pace of news production does not allow control by a sufficiently large number of users capable of taming and controlling spam and technical errors.

Although Wikipedia is definitely one of the most well-known participatory journalism sites, there are numerous projects relevant to citizen journalism which are experimenting with new ways to involve users, and with the creation of new rules for producing news and quality information in a participatory approach.

The pioneer of this type of participatory journalism is the aforementioned, the South Korean news site (with more than a million users per day) which was launched in 2000. About 70% of its content is produced by around 35,000 citizen-reporters; these are common users who contribute by sending in articles. The newsroom is composed of only 47 people.

Just a year ago, OhMyNews launched a site in English, with the intention of attracting an international audience by using the same formula. Beaten to the punch in terms of innovation, Americans soon caught up, and recently have been creating a veritable abundance of new sites for participatory journalism.

In the US, the element of success of such new participatory journalism sites has been the anchoring of news to local communities. In this way, there's an opportunity to take advantage of the cumulative knowledge assets of citizens who confront problems and relevant events in their territory on a daily basis. These people are motivated, competent and eager to write about such events as it benefits them while benefiting others as well. Following this very formula of participatory journalism, just as did, many news site strongly connected to their city or to their local community have started to appear on the American web too.

Forms of participatory journalism do vary and can be characterized by the degree of audience involvement.

Steve Outing, senior editor for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, proposed a participatory journalism classification based on 11 levels.

The shallowest, most superficial level, is characterized by users being able to insert comments to articles, and then higher participatory levels include the ability to solicit stories on particular subjects, or the interactive consultation process taking place during the creation of contents. At the end of the classification levels and showing the highest degree of participatory journalism, there are sites that are entirely built thanks to the contributions made by users.

The phenomenon is so successful that many traditional media sites like, and BBC News are offering spaces which allow users to publish stories or opinions on current events.

This trend has taken off following particular and relevant events which have deeply involved a heavy number of people, such as last year's Tsunami, the London tube attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

These events have all brought to the stage the discovery of the potential offered by video contributions shot by normal people. Amateur videos and images sent by users, often taken by second and third generation cell phones, have been greatly used by traditional media for their immediacy and more often, because they were the only images available at the time of the event.

The only underground photographs taken in London's tube just after the terror attacks on July 7th were taken by citizen's cell phones who were there at the moment of the explosions. Wikipedia's page dedicated to the event was modified hundreds of times, representing detailed and exhaustive information on the happening. On Flickr, the platform for the publication and exchange of digital photos, a group dedicated to the images of the London attack published more than 1,176 photos taken by more than 500 different people.

Also the BBC's on the web asked users who had directly witnessed the attacks to send in their images, videos and story of their experience. Within a few hours they received over 1,000 images, 20 videos with thousands of emails.

In saying that user contribution to information not only pertains to written content, but also to video and audio content can be seen in an experiment considered the most, ambitious and futuristic: Current TV, the newborn cable television created by Al Gore, ex Vice-President to the United States.

Current TV hosts and presenters

Based on videos which last no longer than 5 minutes (named pods), the site was launched as the MTV for information of which 25% of its video programs are produced by the viewers and sent to the newsroom via the station's website. According to Gore, Current's objective, which began on August 1st, is that of connecting, "The Internet generation with television in a totally new way."

Anyone can submit short videos (15 seconds to 5 minutes) to the station, also called vc2 (viewer contributed content), which, if selected, are not only transmitted on TV, but earn the author $250.

The section of the site entitled, Current Studio is a real live participatory online newsroom where one can find the themes on which the broadcaster is requesting coverage from citizen-reporters. One can also find and vote on videos published by users, find suggestions and information on how to produce quality videos, and use forums and discussion groups.

Thanks to an agreement with Google, Current viewers are informed on the most searched words and trends being recorded on the search engine. In this way, the broadcast intends to guarantee a constant connection to the subjects which are of true interest to Internet users.

The arrival of the television version of this participatory approach to content creation and news coverage certainly represents an important test of the practicality of participatory journalism. The evolution of the format, is nonetheless, insufficient in answering all the perplexities arisen from having involved what was once called an "audience" in the actual production of news.

Is it possible to satisfy the basic rules of journalism with an amateur approach?

Isn't it irresponsible to place such a precious and delicate resource in the hands of amateurs?

Is it possible to do away with the journalistic code of ethics, experience, techniques and instruments which belong to journalism as a profession?

Who will guarantee the reliability of what is published?

How do you maintain trust with one's readers, listeners or viewers?

These are questions which arise in the debate on the relationship between blogs and journalism, which in the United States has found an authoritative place for discussion in a conference organized by Harvard University in January entitled, "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility."

The perplexities are many, especially on the growing practice by the media in asking their users to send live testimony via images or videos on events of particular importance. The British Chartered Institute of Journalists, for example, wrote in a statement:

"These TV companies deserve condemnation for their outrageous demands and their disregard for the danger they may be subjecting their viewers to in their attempt to obtain picture material."
A particularly fitting appeal since many television broadcasts asked their own viewers to send in unpublished images during Hurricane Katrina.

Heavy criticism has also arisen from former supporters of participatory journalism, like Vincent Maher, professor of multimedia journalism at Rhodes University. Maher raises a series of objections relating to the absence of a professional code of ethics, the presence of economic conditioning in new forms of online publicity and the absence of adequate process and responsibility in the production of information on blogs. Maher cites a personal episode in which he was inaccurately identified in the coverage of the second terror attack in London made by citizen-journalists. The Guardian's blog had erroneously cited him as 'an American professor' (Maher teaches in South Africa). Within a few hours, the report was taken by dozens of blogs which contained the original mistake, even though the Guardian's blog had corrected it.

If the case cited by Maher seems marginal, the one regarding a young South Korean woman is not.

An image taken by a passerby of the woman who had not cleaned up after her dog on a railway line made its rounds on the web. It generated a veritable witch hunt, made up of defamatory messages on forums and blogs, reaching a climax with an e-mail bombing against the university in which the woman worked. Following the event, the woman lost her job.

It's clear to see how the dispersed nature of blogs makes it impossible to apply rules reserved for traditional mass media. Add to this the possibility to manipulate images through digital technology, the embedded dangers in the circulation of uncontrolled information and the absence of any possibility of overarching control, and this becomes even more evident. That is why Maher, who does not underestimate the importance of the blog phenomenon and the open online sharing of knowledge, suggests to not call these contributions 'journalism', but to use an expression more pertaining to it, such as 'personal editing'.

A more effective way of analyzing the phenomenon is to pull away from the conflict of traditional journalism vs. participatory journalism, just as Ugo Vallari does when he writes about the impact blogs have on information,

"The journalist doesn't come out destroyed by this work model, but renewed. His role remains central in knowing how to assemble different aspects together, conducting the right verifications, write their own articles in clear and catchy ways, ponder on points of view. What undergoes a radical change is recognizing the renewed dimensions of the arena in which the process takes place, and adapt to it. (...)

The required paradigmatic change is to open to the possibility for a true, ongoing interaction, influencing those who write and those who habitually read."

Perhaps no one has been able to best synthesize the problem like Tom Curley, the head of the Associated Press. During his opening speech at the Online News Association Conference in 2004, he said,

"As we've seen so clearly in the last year or so, consumers will want to use the two-way nature of the Internet to become active participants themselves in the exchange of news and ideas. The news, as "lecture," is giving way to the news as a "conversation"."

Participatory journalism is therefore both a consequence and an annunciation of this paradigmatic change. Participatory journalism is a terrain for experimentation for all the new dimensions of independent information publishing. It won't replace journalists with a line-up of citizen reporters, but it will contribute to create new roles and functions for journalism in the digital age.

And the first function of participatory journalism is certainly the one of rewriting a trust act between journalists and readers.

In recent years, there's been a strong decline of trust in mass media by readers. This translates into a decline of newspaper readers and television viewers. Engaging in a conversation with readers is a method of communication that can bring back trust by allowing publishers to listen to the questions and true information needs of citizens, thus making more transparent the process with which news is packaged and directly engaging the public in the newsmaking process.

Whether newspaper editors or journalists want it or not, this is already happening. The huge availability and accessibility of news information offered by the Internet fuels many bloggers interest in verifying and fact-checking the truth and accuracy of the stories published by mass media.

The first thing that comes to mind is the scandal covered by Dan Rather, the renowned CBS news reporter, who had been covering a story showing footage explaining US President George Bush justified avoidance of his military service duties. It was blogs that proved the falsity of the documents used in CBS' piece, and which ultimately brought about the resignation of one of the most known television anchormen.

Recently, a petition generated by blogs forced Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN, to resign following declarations at the World Economic Forum in Davos that American soldiers in Iraq had been aiming for journalists, and had killed 12 of them.

Photo credit: Robin Good

Jay Rosen, on the Columbia Journalism Review, uses an effective analogy when he writes,

"Medical authority is simply not the same in a world where patients do their own research on alternative drugs and treatment regimes. It would be surprising if authority in elite journalism remained the same when the very readers the [New York] Times cultivates (educated, affluent, curious) are themselves rich in alternative sources of news. Do net-surfing patients stop trusting their doctors? No, but they are less likely to be overawed."

The creation of new trust paths between journalists and readers is not the only positive function that can come from an increased number of ways of communicating and from a more active participation of the public.

The white book of the American Press Institute entitled, We Media, lists many others, including:

  • The possibility for readers to express comments

  • The function of a news filter for news found on the net through links

  • The control of accuracy in published information

  • The enrichment of sources and ideas for journalists thanks to suggestions and stories presented by readers

  • The possibility for journalists to ask for suggestions and corrections by the public

Participatory journalism allows readers to create an interested community around information.

Just as Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis suggest in the American Press Institute report,

"A successful Internet site is a platform which supports social interaction around news. The press must start involving and help grow the online community in order to build affinity and trust to the brand. Community members are interested in your brand when they are involved in the journalistic process, offering worthy comments, demonstrating their competence on particular subjects, offering reports on events they witness and acting as information filters for other readers."

Participation modifies the role of news to readers, who are transformed from passive consumers to producers in the news-making process.

As Rebecca MacKinnon writes, "A person absorbs and re-elaborates information at a level much deeper by just being able to be involved in a discussion on it, and even more if she/he takes it a step further and writes an opinion in a public space." This, as it should be self-evident, is therefore a phenomenon that has important influences on how democracies should actually work.

The very existence of blogs and of all other new publishing tools that allow independent citizens to create and contribute information to the web, raises, as it is to be expected, demand for new rules and policies on how to self-govern such new media and on how to establish appropriate ethics to it.

Just as the New York Times provocatively wrote in an article on the Rather and Eason cases, "Many bloggers who criticize the ethics in mass media often find themselves in a strange position of adhering to even lower standards, or worse yet, to no standards at all."

One can still endlessly ponder this matter. Starting from the "neutral point of view" adopted by Wikipedia, who asks contributors to "honestly describe debates, and not be biased", to the rules which users are asked to abide to in order to submit articles on various sites of participatory journalism., for example, reminds users of the rules even in the comments space, and inserts a link allowing users to flag the newsroom if some submissions don't abide to this.

Some have even presented veritable and proper codes of ethics for bloggers, to which they can be adhered to voluntarily. The most well-known document of this kind is probably that of, "Six standards of ethical conduct for bloggers" proposed by Rebecca Blood. The six standards are:

  1. Only publish facts which you know are true.

  2. if the material exists online, insert a link when you refer to it

  3. publicly correct any disinformation

  4. write any entry as if you couldn't change it; add, but never rewrite or delete the entry

  5. reveal any conflict of interest

  6. note when you use controversial or biased source

A study commissioned for the conference held at Harvard, has suggested that the code of ethics for individual bloggers must be created by gradually involving blog readers in this process.

The idea is that each blog should have a page in which it lists all of the rules and policies that it intends to respect when publishing news, organized in a Q&A/FAQ style. This page should be continuously updated as readers submit new queries and requests for clarification to the site author(s).

In imagining new rules and new mechanisms that would augment a sense of responsibility in participatory journalism, the needed discussion necessarily includes analying the rules and principles of traditional journalism while abandoning any direct confrontation or competition between blogs and traditional journalism. This is not a confrontation, but the evolution of news publishing into formats that engage audiences in more direct ways.

One of the principles under scrutiny is that of objectivity. This is a debate which certainly does not originate with blogs, to which Problemi dell'Informazione has dedicated much time. Nonetheless, the multiplying points of view and voices made possible by participatory journalism contribute to place the subject of objectivity as a highly disputable pivot principle of traditional journalism.

As Dan Gillmor wrote, the principle of objectivity makes sense in a scenario where few groups monopolize the production of information. "If a voice overpowers all the rest, there's a public interest in telling stories in the most neutral manner, without taking sides.".

The scenario changes when you look at online news and information, where many competitive voices and the possibility for users to intervene in debates directly exposing their points of view, or discussing what has been suggested by the original writer is all ok.

Part of the success of blogs, furthermore, consists in being able to give information its personal voice back. As Francesco Uboldi says,

"One must consider the possibility to re-introduce into journalism the personality of those who write, in times when the mechanisms of the industry silence them; thus showing how newspapers are not monolithic structures, but rather a team of individuals with personal points of view, with faces and emotions."

Some separate thinking should be devoted to the applicability of this
views, for now all-American if we exclude the blog-related parts, to the Italian panorama.

Here, you need to take into account the much lower Internet presence, the different news and information scene and other factors that deeply differentiate our country from the US. In any case, if we go back to the starting point of this article, and thus to Rupert Murdoch's own statements, it is unavoidable to see how these would be applicable also to Italy.

Research conducted by the Osservatorio Giovani-Editori, just like the Censis research, portrays a yearly picture where Italian youth and newspapers are increasingly distant.

The credibility of print and major television headlines, as registered by some surveys, is very low and constantly decreasing.

Geraldina Roberti writes an article dedicated to the relationship between youth and newspapers, "what is most confuted to journalists is the habit of writing articles in which readers are assumed to be already quite familiar with the topic at hand; a similar mechanism makes younger readers feel excluded, bringing them to look at other instruments of information."

The most successful experiment among Italian participatory journalism is surely Il Barbiere della Sera.

Born on the total voluntary idea of a small group of young journalists, the Barbiere has rapidly become a reference point for uncensored information on the world of journalism and communication in Italy.

Apart from the tight knit newsroom composed by volunteers, the BDS (as it's known in it's circle of readers) is packaged in large measure thanks to news sent in by registered users.

There are almost 5,000 of them, many of them who work in the world of information and communication and tell of its facts, gossip and secrets.

"Every day", writes the Barbiere Della Sera, "in our work we see the actual daily life of a newsroom, the relationships with the directors and managers of the companies that we work for, and we automatically capture in our memories small episodes, comments, ideas and tips of our many colleagues, all news which often remain unused in the drawer because they are not "in line" with the rest or because the chief editor has decided not to use them.

At the Barbiere Della Sera, if a news story is true and verified, it is always good to publish it."

Articles sent by users to the Barbiere della Sera undergo verification for reliability before being published and names and telephone numbers are often asked to those who send in contributions.

Like many experiments of participatory journalism, the Barbiere della Sera was born with the goal of creating a news outlet for information and stories which would have not found a place on traditional media.

Its success resides in the ability to provide information and news not carried by other news outlets.

This is a well-known phenomenon, accurately described by blogger Massimo Mantellini:

"Around blogs, and around the amazing technological innovations emerging around them, new energies and ideas are coming together.

Individuals that understand the potential and innovative profile of these new communication formats, and who decide to study and research them. Individuals that come themselves from the field of journalism and culture (I think of Telco of Franco Carlini, to the Barbiere della Sera to the Nazione Indiana) and who are now free not to beg for a temp writing collaboration that will not come, for a publisher that will not properly distribute your book, for a small and badly paid space on a newspaper that sells hardly 3,000 copies.

A framework of large and small privileges that starts to crumble in front of the birth of a new alternative, which while not (yet) significant in economic terms, appears to be very rewarding in personal terms."

Next to the Barbiere I should cite the satellite TV channel Nessuno TV, who, thanks to a partnership with the blog platform il Cannocchiale and over 70 individual bloggers, selects and airs the best video blog clips created by the participating bloggers.

The experiment is very interesting, but for now the limited number participating bloggers limits somehow the scope of this new initiative. As Nessuno.TV own director, Bruno Pellegrini, states
"adding up all of the video blog contributions we get each day, we hardly have a full hour of programming to air."

If the examples of the Barbiere and of may appear of low relevance due to their niche target audiences, the same cannot be said for another participatory journalism experiment "made in Italy".

The investigative reporting section titled "Profondo Italia", and directed by Dario di Vico and Emiliano Fittipaldi on the major Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has introduced a whole new way of engaging readers.

After each published episode, readers are in fact invited on the Corriere della Sera online forum to comment and to express their points of view. The messages collected in the forum are then published on the print version of the Corriere della Sera after a few days.

The investigative reporting assignment on new poverty scenarios and on the inefficiencies of the Italian economic and social system, could then be enriched and complemented by the contributions of those who were indeed living those very situations.

And it is the very Dario di Vico, in the introductory section to the book that brings together all of the episodes of the above program together with the messages from the readers, who proposes further thinking on the topics touched in this very essay.

"The first impression is that we are building a plurality for a few:
the number of publications increases, next to large circulation newspapers new opinionated dailies spring up continuously, but the overall number of readers keeps going down.

There's an increase in the wad of papers for those workers in the learned society consume in the morning in their offices, but little is done so that the youth can savor the feeling of turning a newspaper page, or that another reader doesn't turn away.

To give visibility to social issues and problems, to tell about vertical conflicts, not to rely only on back stories about the conflicts between elites, is the necessary condition to enable independent newspapers.

More readers, more independence.

The more the new journalism will be able to tell relevant stories even to women at home, the more the idea that only television enjoys a wide and popular degree of trust will lose weight.


In our case, new technologies have played a very important role.
After each issue of "Profondo Italia", the Corriere della Sera online site has received many contributions from readers, who not only were expressing their views on the newspaper treatment of the subject, but who, and here is the real news - were contributing themselves facts and information, which in turn significantly extended and enriched the panorama painted by the report while providing new points requiring further investigation and research: a contribution to which newspapers will not be able to do without.

The courageous experiment conducted by the Corriere della Sera best demonstrates the possible benefits that audience involvement can bring to today's journalism. To continue in this direction is the message arriving from a Universe in constant evolution in information on new media.

The Corriere della Sera brave experiment best showcases the benefits that participatory journalism can bring to today's print media.

To continue in this direction is the message being broadcast from the ever-evolving universe of new media.

originally written in Italian by Diego Galli
as "Che cos'è il giornalismo partecipativo?
Dal giornalismo come lezione, al giornalismo come conversazione"
on Problemi dell'Informazione (il Mulino)
September 3rd 2005

Diego Galli graduated from the University Roma Tre, and holds a degree in political science. He's been a researcher for the Centro d'ascolto dell'informazione radiotelevisiva. Presently, he's responsible for the Radio Radicale website and owner of the blog

translated in English by Chiara Moriconi, Matthew Guschwan and Robin Good

Diego Galli -
Reference: Il Mulino [ Read more ]
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posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, January 10 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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