How much is too much? Interactivity in online journalism.

Online Journalism has really taken off in the last 10 years, with almost all print newspapers offering an online edition.  Nowadays, more and more people are getting their news from online news sources, and as a result, the print industry has begun to decline. There is a shift in the way that journalism is being practiced, and one aspect of this is how interactivity has become an integral part of online journalism.

Interactivity involves the user or reader becoming involved in the journalism, which has its upsides and downsides. Interactivity can come in the form of comment sections on stories, the taking of polls, and also through citizen journalism. Basically it means that the reader is now closer than ever to the journalist, and in some cases, boundaries are blurred.

In this essay I would like to examine audience interaction and if there is room for the reader in journalism, interactivity in newspapers, and how citizen journalism is on the increase.

Do newspapers have to become interactive to survive?:

Most of the mainstream newspapers have gone online in the last number of years. They don’t have an option, as the future is in the internet. Online newspapers have adapted and changed to follow what is popular online at the time, and most have done it well. For example, the Irish Independent advertises its Facebook and Twitter services on its home page, in order to make the paper more interactive.

Although the Irish Independent has an online presence, it does not allow room for user comment or opinion. There is an email address for the journalist, but no actual comment box. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? From a journalist’s point of view, it’s a good thing. No comments can be posted, so there is no room for negative opinion. From a reader’s point of view, I find it a little strange. Why is their no room for a reader’s opinion? Why can’t an average person question a journalist, or even add their own slant to a news story? Is the Irish Independent afraid of what sort of input a reader could have?

On the other hand, the Independent’s rival, the Irish Times allows comment on their website. Some of their journalists keep blogs, and it is quite well advertised that they want comment on their pieces. The Times also has a poll section, where they ask a question like: ‘Will the European Union’s stabilisation fund succeed in preventing the spread of the Greek debt crisis? Yes or No?’ and readers can vote. Under each question, there is then a selection of reader comments on the issue at hand. I feel that it is a very good idea, as it gives different opinions on the one issue by including the reader.

Audience interaction:

There is no getting away from the fact that people are opinionated, and if they have internet access, there is nothing really stopping someone from making their opinions known on a global scale. But is audience participation a good thing? It has become easier and easier for people to make their feelings known, but does that make them a trustworthy source of information?

Participatory journalism is a new phenomenon, the lines between journalists and the reader are now blurred. By a newspaper leaving itself open to comment, it is also leaving itself open to criticism, and traditionally, there was no room for criticism in journalism. The point of a journalist was to be a gatekeeper, to decide what was newsworthy and deliver it to the public. Now, the public can decide what they would like to read about, and if they don’t like it, if they have a problem with a news story, most newspapers have some form of comment section on their websites, so they can make their feelings known. After that, it is up to the journalist to decide whether he/she would like to defend their work, or respond to the user who had left the comment.

Would this sort of audience interaction be comfortable for a journalist? According to the Journalism Practice article ‘Participatory Journalism Practices In the Media and Beyond’, ‘contemporary critics have proposed alternative models such as public journalism that asked for a more reciprocal relationship between reporters and their audience, suggesting news should be a conversation rather than a lecture’. Is this a fair point? Are audiences entitled to have their opinions counted in the online journalism sphere?

I came across a 2000 article called ‘Mass media and the concept of interactivity’ written by Tanjev Schultz of Indiana University in the US. While alot of it is academic jargon, there are quite a few good points made in it.

Schultz feels that the Magic Bullet or Hypodermic Needle model was in existence for so many years, that journalists are unsure of how to treat interactivity, as audiences have sat back and accepted what they have said for so many years. Ordinary people have always had fairly limited opportunities to participate in the media, not to mention actually being able to discuss with the journalist. The mass media had a hold over audiences, one that was immediate and powerful, and now the readers have the opportunity to bite back in the largest public sphere, the Internet.

Citizen Journalism and interactivity:

With interactivity, citizen journalism will always come. There are websites out there that cater for normal people with an interest in news, not just journalists. For example, the website Newsvine incorporates user content, such as articles, with professional news sources like ESPN and Associated Press. Its aim is to ‘bring together big and little media in a way which respects established journalism and empowers the individual at the same time.’ An interesting concept, Newsvine allows anyone to upload an article, but its placement is decided on a number of things like writer reputation and the freshness of the news.

Websites like Newsvine are great for those who are interested in journalism but can’t quite make it into the print industry itself. Being such a competitive career, citizen journalism sites are a good starting point to get some experience, and also to offer your editorial viewpoint to another budding citizen journalist.

Although there are upsides to citizen journalism, there are always going to be downsides. One is that with the ease of accessing the internet, anyone can write news. With trustworthy sources being the backbone of good journalism, can you always trust citizen journalists? With a high number of people all trying to do the same job, journalism may lose its credibility. Would this be to the detriment of news quality, or can it only enhance it?

Conclusion:

There is one thing that I am certain of after writing this essay, and that it that interactivity in online journalism is here to stay. Readers feel the need to get involved, and in these tough times in our country, everyone wants a voice, everyone wants a place to vent their anger. Audience interaction is something that will never go away, if anything it will only become more popular.

I feel that audiences are entitled to their opinion, and every news source should make allowances for that. If a journalist is able to write an opinion or analysis piece, they should be ready to stand up and answer to it, as not everyone would agree with it. That is the good thing about audience interaction is that it offers a place for multiple opinions and the space for the journalist to debate the work that they have written.

I feel that it is absolutely necessary for newspapers to become interactive in order to survive online. The internet is a platform for opinion, and if newspapers don’t allow for comment, readers will take theirs elsewhere.

Newspapers should embrace interactivity, because without it, it offers the same two dimensional services that a print newspaper does. Interactivity adds a whole new level to journalism. When it comes down to completely interactive websites like Newsvine, I think they are a good platform for people with an interest in news and journalism to write and add their own input to what internet users read. Although they may not be as trustworthy as traditional news websites, like the Guardians website, or the Irish Times,  they do offer a good service.

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