The Producer/User Distinction in Journalism
Summary and Keywords
Journalism can be defined as a communication process between producers and consumers. Traditionally, both ends have been addressed as separate spheres. Journalism and journalism studies developed around the study of journalism producers—that is, journalists and their professional identities and practices. The audience was long considered the end point of journalism; the public sphere was where journalism was consumed. Rather than also studying audiences’ news use practices, the audience was generally imagined as a mass of passive sensation seekers unappreciative of the value of good journalism and taken for granted as a result. This dichotomous view of users and producers has since then been challenged.
First, the inequality in attention given to producers over users was addressed during a sociological turn in the study of journalism since the 1990s. This “turn” inspired a series of seminal studies focusing on the audience of journalism, showing how layered people’s interpretative practices are and how these are contextually shaped. Although journalism studies in the 21st century still tend to orient their gaze more to producers than users, the audience’s part in shaping the role of journalism in society is being increasingly acknowledged.
In parallel, with the continuing advancements in information and communication technologies, the conceptual distinction between producers and users in itself was questioned. Whereas the role of audiences in producing news was already explored in studies of community media and public journalism, it was the adoption of digital media that led to the blurring of lines between media producers and users. This distinction has encouraged journalism researchers to explore practices such as citizen and participatory journalism, leading to new conceptions of the user/producer dimension in journalism.
The user/producer dimension in journalism may be blurred, but it has not dissolved. Especially from a more structural perspective, professional journalists and news organizations still have preferential access to the news ecosystem and larger impact on the policy agenda. Conceptually however, news users should be conceived as potential contributors to the production and distribution of journalism. As such, news users are not the end point of journalism but an essential part of it.
Historical Review: From an Encoder/Decoder to a User/Producer Dimension
Koetsenruijter and Van Hout (2014) defined journalism as a communication process between producers and consumers and defined the discipline studying that communication process as journalism studies. However, within journalism studies, both sides of that process have not necessarily enjoyed the same level of interest. Historically, journalism research has focused primarily on the production and content of the news rather than on its consumption and reception (Picone, Courtois, & Paulussen, 2015, p. 38). Questions of the economy of production, news production flows, news sources, and representation in the news have been studied much more intensively than questions of news use, interpretations, or routines (Madianou, 2009).
This is not to say that the notion of news consumers was absent in early academic work on journalism, or that no studies at that time centered on news audiences. Rather, research on the journalism-audience relationship was also interspersed with assumptions “rooted in mass media systems, where the asymmetry between journalism and audience is a defining characteristic” (Loosen & Schmidt, 2012, p. 869). The audience remained an implied category, referring to the fact that in journalism theory—as in other social, political, and economic theories—the audience was being implicitly presumed rather than actually investigated and theorized (Madianou, 2009; Livingstone, 1998). This resulted in an approach to news as the end point of journalism—and journalism studies—rather than as “a dynamic component of social and cultural life” (Madianou, 2009, p. 325) that was worth studying beyond its publication.
More dedicated attention for the “receiver” of journalism entered journalism studies through a “sociological turn” in the field during the 1970s and 1980s (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009), in turn part of a broader movement toward interdisciplinarity within the social sciences that paved the way for the field of reception and audience studies (Livingstone, 1998). This tradition of scholarship critically engaged with journalism’s normative conventions and professional culture and was open to the growing importance of what was popular in the news. Research was inspired by the then-developing field of cultural studies and its proponents such as James Carey, Stuart Hall, John Hartley, and Barbie Zelizer (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009, p. 6).
Two important approaches to news audiences took shape in the wake of this turn, linked to Stuart Hall and James Carey respectively (Madianou, 2009, p. 325), that reconfigured the one-way user/producer dimension in journalism. The first approach comes out of Stuart Hall’s (1980) seminal “encoding/decoding” model, emphasizing an audience’s interpretation of the news. Hall presented communication as a dynamic circuit where messages were not only encoded by producers but could also be decoded by audiences in line with or opposed to the producers’ preferred meaning. Importantly, Hall’s conception acknowledged the role of the audience in shaping the meaning of media messages. As a result, studying audiences and how they actively interpreted the news became relevant (for an overview, see Madianou, 2009).
Another approach stemmed from the ideas developed initially by James Curran and James Carey, who saw news consumption as a ritual (see their respective chapters in Liebes & Curran, 1998). The focus expanded from audiences’ interpretation of texts to encompass routine uses of news. News use was then no longer regarded as merely an informational activity but also as fulfilling other functions in people’s everyday life such as providing citizens with topics of everyday conversation (Silverstone & Sørensen, 2005; Madianou, 2009). Silverstone (1991) showed the importance of the medium next to the message, which emphasized the role of technology in the user/producer dimension. By paying attention to the way media were adopted and given meaning as devices, Silverstone expanded the significance of media beyond that of the text. Inspired by social studies of science and technology, the user/producer dimension was being further conceptualized as being delineated by the affordances of the mediating technologies, or “the functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby, 2001, p. 445). Technological advancements alter the affordances of media technologies redefine the playing field of possibilities users and producers have to use media—and hence reconfigure the relationship between them. This explains why the user/producer dimension gets renewed attention in media studies whenever new media emerge.
In sum, the historical evolution of the user/producer dimension in journalism studies—as in media studies in general—is primarily one of balancing attention for both users and producers in shaping communication processes such as journalism. Reception studies have been advancing our understanding of the audience’s role in shaping media and at the same time advocating academic attention for audiences (Livingstone, 1998). Journalism studies, however, have been particularly resistant to adopting an audience perspective in their research. Zelizer (2004, p. 100) points out the “uneasy coexisting of journalism and cultural studies,” as it is difficult for cultural studies “to embrace journalism’s god-terms of facts, truth, and reality alongside its own regard for subjectivity and construction.” And vice versa, journalism studies have found it difficult to adapt their canon of normative theories on the informational role of journalism in democracy to insights about the more ritualistic and popular role of journalism in people’s everyday life (Zelizer, 2012).
Secondly, it is through the lens of technological advancements that the user/producer dimension has gained more prominent attention in journalism studies since the mid-2000s. Before the wide adoption of digital interactive media, the convergence between journalists and news users had definitely been given attention, most notably in studies of public journalism (Nip, 2006) and community media (Deuze, 2006). In these accounts, deliberation and collaboration with community members was central. They challenged the role of the audience as mere consumers and considered community members as participants in the news-making process. Still, the categories of users and producers of information were not questioned.
By the mid-2000s, however, the technological advancements of the Internet began to allow users with no specific technical knowledge to gain access to the means of information production—through so-called “new media” or “Web 2.0” applications such as blogs, podcasts, online video, social media, among others—leading to “a new zone of media exhibition that is neither ‘professionalised’ mainstream nor amateur hobbyist” (Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant, & Kelly, 2003, p. 34). In that “new zone,” journalism was one key area where the subsequent reconfiguration of the user/producer dimension was believed to have disruptive consequences. Hence, this moment in recent history can be seen as the point where journalism scholars started to study the user/producer dimension in journalism studies—albeit not necessarily always taking a user perspective on the matter—and how it was being reconfigured based on advancements in media technologies.
Key Research on the User/Producer Dimension in Journalism
The News in Times of Blurred Lines
By the turn of the century, advancements in information and communication technologies inspired a series of fundamental questions about how new media were impacting society (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006). One key aspect was the blurring distinction between users and producers of information. Admittedly, the audience as producer of information had been scrutinized before, for example in the study of fan fiction (Tulloch & Jenkins, 1995). The idea that the audience should be involved more actively in the news process—the premise of “public journalism” (Rosen, 1999)—had already been explored prior to the wide adoption of interactive technologies (Picone et al., 2015). But the development of digital media seemed to feed the idea that the delineation between both conceptual categories was starting to fade.
It is difficult to ignore the role that tech publisher and entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly (2005) played when he popularised the term “Web 2.0,” which promised “a world in which ‘the former audience,’ not a few people in a back room, decides what’s important,” insisting that “users must be treated as co-developers” (O’Reilly, 2005). The idea that technological advancements opened up opportunities for individuals to express themselves to a wider audience also permeated in journalism studies (Tickle & Keshvani, 2001, pp. 101–102): “The consumer is turning producer as the affordability and ease of operation of digital recorders, still cameras and DVCs emboldens non-journalists to record and transmit coverage of news events.” The development of “user-generated content” inspired journalism scholars such as Dan Gillmor (2004) to envision times when “we,” the people, would be “the media,” or Jay Rosen (2006) to famously describe the public as “the people formerly known as the audience.” By then Henry Jenkins (2006) spoke about “convergence culture” to point out—among other things—that the distinction between production and consumption of information is often blurred.
These accounts played a significant role in putting the notion of user-generated content and the resulting blurring distinction between users and producers of information on the agenda of journalism studies. They were, however, limited on three fronts. First, they were generally adopting a celebratory tone, advocating the rise of the citizen journalists (Gillmor, 2004). The revolutionary character of those new media often seemed a given in these accounts, focusing on effects rather than the realization of technologies and the more evolutionary manner in which people give new media a place in their daily lives (Boczkowski, 2004, p. 2). A good example is the underlying idea that everyone would become a journalist in times where access to the means of production are open to all. More than a decade later, blogs have not turned out to be the go-to place for mainstream news consumption, having been normalized by the mainstream media (Singer, 2005). It is an illustration of how the utopian and dystopian visions, which historically accompany any new technological development (Lister et al., 2003, p. 53), focus attention on the disruptions rather than the continuities in the media.
A second remark is that these initial works addressed the user/producer dimension but did not engage much with journalism theory. An important exception is the work of Axel Bruns (2005, 2008) on gatewatching and produsage. Bruns was mainly concerned with what the blurring of the user/producer dimension meant for news as the outcome of a journalistic production process. He took an established concept in journalism theory as a starting point and showed that when news media, online information providers, and online users alike can add information into the public arena, gatekeeping may no longer be the most appropriate newsgathering paradigm. Making the distinction between media outlets that publicize information that is already present online and media outlets that publish their own reporting, he proposed adopting the term gatewatching to stress the fact that online journalism may be equally about curating existing news than about reporting events.
Bruns (2008) later introduces the notion of “produsage,” a portmanteau of “producing usage,” and in doing so proposes a concept that embodies the collapse of the user and producer category. Bruns did address the user/producer dimension but took changes in journalistic production as a starting point, not changes in user experience (Picone, 2011; Pavlíčková & Kleut, 2016). Bruns conceived produsage as a new, collaborative way in which information is produced online, where everyone can participate. The outcome is news that is no longer the end product of a journalistic production process but rather an ever-unfinished entity that can be shared, commented on, and amended after publication. This type of news is also not “owned” by journalists but is the common property of everyone engaging with it (Bruns & Schmidt, 2011). Hence, Bruns posits the user/producer dimension as central to developments in journalism, while relating them to key concepts and approaches in journalism studies such as gatekeeping and news production.
Last but not least, most of these accounts have addressed the relationship between journalists and citizens from an overtly Western perspective. As a result, studies looking at developing countries often awkwardly applied Western professional norms and practices to non-Western contexts, neglecting the realities and corresponding challenges specific to these countries (Atton & Mabweazara, 2011). Moyo (2009), for example, in work on citizen journalism in Zimbabwe, shows how the Mugabe regime, openly criticizing the Internet as an imperialist tool, has continuously sought to curtail freedom of expression, both offline and online, through laws and extrajudicial tactics. Moyo shows how this has sparked many online forms of “digital resistance” by citizens and organizations since 2000.
Journalistic Practices Strained by Participatory and Citizen Journalism
After authors such as Gillmor, Rosen, Boczkowski, Bruns and others put the user/producer dimension on the agenda of journalism studies in the beginning of the century, a wave of studies emerged that approached the phenomenon through newsroom ethnographies, a traditional approach in journalism studies. These studies were more broadly concerned with how the digitalization of the media system affected journalists and journalism; they addressed newsroom roles and routines and the content that journalists create as well as the implications of online users’ participation in content production (Quandt & Singer, 2009, p. 133).
One of the first newsroom ethnographies emphasizing user-generated content was Boczkowski’s (2004) research into a number of American online news sites that considered users as co-producers. He notes how taking user-generated content into account leads to a distributed rather than a centralized production of news, where information flows in multiple directions and journalists facilitate rather than create news. Hermida and Thurman (2008) includes interviews with leading UK newspaper executives and how they consider the adoption of interactive features. The authors uncover a clash between the “distributed” culture of openness and participation that comes with user-generated content and the “centralized” culture associated with journalists’ traditional role of gatekeeping and control over the news process and product.
Indeed, an important contribution of many of these studies lies in revealing how most attempts to bridge the user/producer dimension in practice seemed to be much more complicated than expected. In collaborating with users, journalists come across many barriers: professional and journalistic values, work routines, decisions at different levels within the media, mismatches between management’s wishes and resources and increased work pressure of journalists being required to moderate online comment sections or streamline the relationship with users (Paulussen, Geens, & Vandenbrande, 2011; Singer, 2004; Thurman, 2008). The extent to which editorial staff are open to user participation at different times in the production process depends on the professional context (routines, corporate culture, and organization), the market-related context (size, management structure, and competition), and the social context (history of the public sphere and media legislation) (Domingo et al., 2008).
Hence, it became clear that journalists themselves were not necessarily fond of the idea of their professional role being challenged by news users (see also Wall, 2015). The attitude of resistance exposed in these studies nuanced the narratives of a fading user/producer dimension. David Domingo (2008, p. 685) speaks of the “myth of interactivity” when he emphasizes the gap between the large participatory potential of the Internet and the small-scale use of interactive possibilities in newsrooms. He attributes this gap mainly to the professional culture of traditional journalists and their rigid routines (Domingo, 2008). Several initiatives are also ill-considered or arise from copycat behavior in which newsrooms implement interactive elements simply because other competitors are also doing so—or because they are believed to attract more readers—rather than a genuine belief in user collaboration (Domingo, 2008, p. 696).
This does not mean that journalists who have doubts about user contributions are per definition against the spirit of participatory journalism. They are hesitant primarily about the consequences it can have for their job satisfaction and comfort. For example, while there seems to be a general consensus in the newsroom that interactive and co-production possibilities are a good thing, news makers are generally hesitant about the practical problems associated with a more open, dialogic news environment, which does not really foster a culture of collaboration (Chung, 2007; Paulussen et al., 2011). Dealing with the emerging digital media culture in which consumers also become producers of information and media companies try and converge on the production of news (e.g., integrated newsroom) requires, according to Deuze (2008, p. 848), a new and fluid journalism in the service of the networked society.
These studies on the one hand drew a more critical picture of the user/producer dimension, accentuating the relative solidity of the boundaries delineating the journalistic profession. On the other hand, they did put the study of the user/producer dimension on the agenda of journalism studies. The study of “participatory journalism” continues to put collaboration between journalists and news users central, looking at journalistic practices: for example, these studies look at how journalists use user-generated content on social media as a news source (Hermida, Lewis, & Zamith, 2014; Paulussen & Harder, 2014; Broersma & Graham, 2013) and consider professional boundaries such as the tension between professional control and open participation (Carlson, 2015; Lewis, 2012; Örnebring, 2008).
Parallel to the development of studies in participatory journalism, another branch of studies looking at the user/producer dimension in journalism studies can be identified. Nip (2006, pp. 212–213) regards participatory and citizen journalism as slightly different configurations of the connection between journalists and citizens—while considering both as a continuation of the more deliberative relationship between journalists and citizens advocated by public journalism before. Admittedly both terms are often used interchangeably (see also Wall, 2015), but the former emphasizes how journalists engage with news users, soliciting their contributions “within a frame designed by the professionals” (Nip, 2006, p. 217), while the later accentuates how news users, both as communities and individuals, engage with journalism when “professionals are not involved at all” (Nip, 2006, p. 217).
Here, too, much of the research in citizen journalism has examined how professional journalists interacted with—or better still, responded to—news users turning to websites (and later blogs and social media) to voice their concerns or report events (Wall, 2015, p. 798). This ranges from studies focusing on news blogs (e.g., Matheson, 2004; Carlson, 2007; Wall, 2005; Gil de Zúñiga, 2009) to wikis and reader forums (e.g., Thurman, 2008; Graham, 2013; Weber, 2013) to social media (e.g., Mortensen, 2011; Murthy, 2011; Hermida, 2010). These studies address citizen journalism as both community media or individual expression, both a continued effort by citizen reporters or a one-off act by concerned citizens and occasional eyewitnesses.
Still, the focus on the user side in citizen journalism accounts for studies that moved away from the perspective of the professional journalist central in the research on participatory journalism, shifting their gaze toward the news users themselves, the information they produced, their motivations to contribute to the news, and the factors determining their participation. Noteworthy here is the early work of Zizi Papacharissi (2002, 2004), who analyzed content on personal home pages and blogs. She considered these acts as forms of self-presentation rather than information production, showing the importance of self-expression and self-development, connection with online communities, and personal emotions when generating content.
Interest in understanding why users engage in generating content online led to various studies adopting a “uses and gratifications” approach. Looking at user-generated content in general, research showed that users are mainly driven by reasons of entertainment (enjoying being creative), professionalism (looking to improve one’s career or having professional aspirations to create content), and community (share creations to connect with friends and family) (Van Dijck, 2009, p. 51). Bloggers more specifically seem motivated to create and maintain their sites “in order to 1) inform and influence the opinion of their readership, 2) express themselves, or 3) forge and reinforce social connections, staying in touch with family and friends as well as meeting new people” (Gil de Zúñiga, 2009, p. 111). This did not only include producing original content but also curating information available elsewhere, which led Bruns and Highfield (2012) to suggest many bloggers were actually engaging in gatewatching activities rather than news production. What these studies showed is that from a user perspective, the journalistic function of informing others is but one of the motivations to create and publish content online, suggesting that users do not necessarily consider themselves journalists nor their actions as journalism when creating online news. On the other hand, the more bloggers perceive their work as journalism, the more likely they are to behave as journalists (quoting sources, checking facts), hence showing how certain users might adopt journalistic practices (Gil de Zúñiga, 2009).
As platforms evolved, so did the notion of citizen journalism, expanding to include creating, commenting on, and sharing news on social media, which can be considered less demanding and more casual ways of contributing to the news. A similar story seemed to emerge out of research looking at motivations for contributing to news on social media. When publishing information or expressing their thoughts online, news users engage in acts of self-publication. As a result, even people casually commenting on news or sharing information are reflective of how they come across to their potential public (e.g., being afraid of saying something stupid or of being ridiculed) (Picone, 2011). This potential public can also strongly differ depending on the platform. Kim and Lowrey (2015), surveying citizen journalism on social media, see different behavior on Facebook than on Twitter. Their findings show, for example, that people with higher civic skills are more likely to read others’ political opinions, post political messages, and retweet political opinions on Twitter but not on Facebook, where they are only likely to read more stories. They suggest Twitter is a more public and open communication space, where civic skills may facilitate active and participatory news use, while on Facebook they may only play a role in evaluating others’ opinions.
Similarly, when looking at motivations to share news, Lee and Ma (2012) found that previous experience with social media played an important role in people’s online sharing activity—suggesting that the more knowledge one has about social media (how social media work and who one’s audience is) the more likely one is to share information. Furthermore, they suggest that “people derive social gratifications from sharing views and news with others” (337). As such, for “regular” users “sharing content online is principally a way to connect to others through the exchange of mutually relevant stories” (Picone et al., 2016, p. 926).
What studies looking at the user/producer dimension in journalism from a user perspective have shown, is that user-generated content can be driven by the ambition to engage in the production of news and journalism but seldom is in reality. This being said, there are certainly users or communities defining themselves as citizen journalists and taking up journalistic roles, whether by producing information or spreading it. And even if sharing news on social media may principally be a way of connecting with others, in doing so users are playing an active role in filtering content, taking over (part of) the journalist’s gatekeeping role. This brings us to the question of whether users becoming producers of information has thoroughly changed what journalism is and what role it plays in a networked society.
Journalism’s Role in a Networked Society
The blurring of lines between users and producers in journalism not only inspired many studies to explore this phenomenon but also incited many normative discussions in journalism studies about its desirability. Since the early days of blogging, for example, scholars and practitioners have debated whether bloggers were or could be journalists and whether journalists could or should also become bloggers (Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2011, p. 588). To a large extent, the discussion boils down to whether journalism is the product of a professional news-making process. The blurred line between users and producers is then perceived as an erosion of the professional boundary, challenging the status that journalism has acquired in society over time as a fourth estate (McNair, 2013, p. 78). The journalistic profession, even if not as formal as other professions requiring specific degrees or skills to access, acquired a specific social capital that led to a certain status in society. For example, journalists benefited from a privileged access to political leaders and celebrities or gave editorials societal weight. Users generating content now challenge the “jurisdictional recognition” of these privileges as, for example, public figures communicate directly with citizens on social media and grand interviews to bloggers (Schudson & Anderson, 2009).
On the one hand, there are voices that welcome these evolutions, arguing that “the practice of journalism, not one’s employment as a professional, determines who is a journalist, and that blogging should be seen as part of a larger news ecology” (Gil De Zúñiga et al., 2011). On the other hand, there are more critical views on this evolution, illustrated well by Andrew Keen (2008, pp. 15–16): “What the web 2.0. revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.” The potential risks of a public sphere with open gates came to the forefront of public attention during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and the ensuing debate on the role fake news stories being spread by news users allegedly played in their outcome.
The question then becomes one of trust: can user-generated content be trusted to be truthful? Journalists themselves have been answering this question negatively, emphasizing the importance of the objectivity and factuality pursued by journalistic practice in contrast to the purported low quality and unreliable nature of many user contributions (O’Sullivan & Heinonen, 2008). This question incited studies (Kaufhold et al., 2010; Ardèvol-Abreu & Gil de Zúñiga, 2017) that investigated the extent to which news users trust citizen journalism compared to traditional journalism, which is not free of flaws, biases, fabrication, or mistakes either (McNair, 2013, p. 81). These flaws are precisely what motivated many political bloggers to publish in the first place, taking the role of a “fifth estate” that watches the watchdogs (Cooper, 2006).
This debate cannot be seen separate from more general views on journalism and its role in society. Views protective of the journalistic profession build on more traditional “liberal” accounts of journalism where the professionalization of the practice is seen as the best guarantee for journalism’s orientation toward the truth (Ward, 2009). In light of the blurring distinction between users and producers of journalism—along with other socioeconomic evolutions affecting journalism—many authors have started advocating revisions to our understanding of journalism that can be more inclusive of the role nonprofessional actors play in it (see the section “Taking the User/Producer Dimension in Journalism Into the Future”). In a networked society, our understanding of editorial processes such as gatekeeping should be expanded to include processes outside the newsroom, accounting for “the connectedness, fluidity, and collaborative potential of both gatekeepers and the gated” (Coddington & Holton, 2014, p. 240). These views have in common the idea that professional journalists should not cling to their role as the only legitimate outlet that forms society’s worldviews (Lewis, 2012); rather, they should embrace their role as “amplifiers of the conversation society has with itself” (Deuze, 2008, p. 848).
More broadly, this suggests a view on journalism as “a varied cultural practice embedded within a complicated social landscape [and] not a solid, stable thing to point to, but a constantly shifting denotation applied differently depending on the context” (Carlson, 2015, p. 2). In this complex social landscape, and its online emanation in various platforms, journalists and users can produce “multiple journalisms” (Murthy, 2013, p. 52) that can coexist alongside each other, each with their own characteristics, practices and norms (Wall, 2015, p. 803). In such a perspective, the user/producer dimension is inherently conceived as fluid, requiring the continuous questioning of “how boundaries are constructed, challenged, reinforced, or erased about who should rightfully gather and disseminate the news—and who should not” (Carlson, 2015, p. 2, see also Carpentier, 2005).
Taking the User/Producer Dimension in Journalism into the Future
Has the user/producer dimension really blurred? It would be hard to maintain that the relationship between users and producers has remained unchanged throughout the last decades. Even if most news is still produced by professional journalist, news users surely have more “room to manoeuvre” when deciding which news to read, how to interpret it and whether they want to share, comment or amend it (Picone, 2017). These acts do not happen in a vacuum, but in what Bruns and Highfield (2012, p. 9) have called a “shared space of news produsage.” In that space, news is distributed over many platforms. On these platforms, news users do not merely consume news, but they also share news items, discuss stories, and cover events. In doing so, they help shape the news agenda, color the public debate, and contribute to the news. Journalists are also present on these platforms, witnessing these contributions within their own social spheres and giving them a place as news sources, inspiration, and reflections in their journalistic practice.
The user/producer dimension in journalism might be blurred, but it has not dissolved. Especially from a more structural perspective, professional journalists and their organizations still have preferential access to the news ecosystem and impact on the policy agenda. As Luders argues (2008, p. 695), “Even when the public is given a chance to participate in mass media contexts (and increasingly they are), the interactions between host and journalist and active members of the audience are situated within an institutional mass media setting, in which the audience en masse does not participate.” This is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Yes, journalists and citizens might be moving in the same online sphere, but news production is still gravitating toward professional news media. A good example is the Arab Spring where research suggests that despite the abundance of citizen content available, mainstream news outlets dominated the coverage (Wall, 2015, p. 803). This resonates with the idea that often both citizens and journalists prefer to stay with “good, old, journalism,” where citizens are presented the most relevant news based on traditional news values (Quandt, 2008). Hence, in practice, the user/producer dimension can play out differently in specific situations, and it is probably fair to say that in most of them, the socioeconomic dynamics of the media sector often favor professional over citizen journalism.
Conceptually however, news users should be conceived as inherently “productive” (Picone, 2016, 2017). Even if many news users often do not actively produce news, they should always be thought of as being potential contributors to the production and distribution of journalism. Production of news, even of journalism, is not what differentiates (professional) journalists from users, as they both contribute to news production even if they take up their “producer role” in distinct ways. When thinking of journalism is such a way, news users are not the end point of journalism but an existential part of it (Picone et al., 2015). This paradigmatic shift—although being in the making since before the digitalization of media through notions of the active audience (Livingstone, 2015)—may be the most essential contribution research on the user/producer dimension has brought to journalism studies. If journalism studies take this turn, what should be points of attention when researching the user/producer dimension in the future?
First, journalism scholars should start from a conception of journalism that values the potential contribution of news users as an integral part of journalism. Such a conception can be found in the notion of “reciprocal journalism” proposed by Lewis, Holton, and Coddington (2014). Looking at the user/producer dimension through this lens implies a more “positive” approach that proposes “studying the exchange of benefits as journalists and audiences increasingly engage one another in networked environments” (p. 229). This is a perspective on journalism that sees the interests of users and journalists as aligned rather than opposed. Their common ground can include civic goals and social change rather than merely the offering and consumption of popular news (Costera-Meijer, 2013; Picone et al., 2015). Both are allies in the development of an open and vibrant public sphere, sharing the same frustration when the democratic potential of collaborative journalism is not being fulfilled. Furthermore, reciprocal journalism puts collaboration with non-journalistic actors central, already providing an opening for collaboration with non-human actants such as algorithms and forms of artificial intelligence as well (Lewis & Westlund, 2015).
Secondly, if we want to take this reciprocal perspective in journalism studies, as Chris Peters (2012) puts it, “We must certainly begin to speak with audiences, as opposed to just about them” (p. 704). Indeed, it will be important to not only think about the role of news users in journalism but also to actually listen to their goals and aspirations. For example, it is by talking to 32 participants in citizen journalism projects that Borger, van Hoof, and Sanders (2014) realized that participants’ commitment is strongly linked to the degree of reciprocity shown by journalists. If the scope is to only be used as a source of information or to outsource certain tasks (such as crawling through data), participants will not feel highly valued, and disillusionment can settle in. Their study shows that the notion of reciprocal journalism resonates amongst users too. It is only by incorporating the users’ perspective on an empirical basis in our thinking about journalism that we can advance a more inclusive conception of journalism in journalism studies. It is therefore promising to see international and comparative research efforts emerge in the study of news users—see for example the international project on news repertoires by Adoni et al. (2017) and the studies looking at audience participation (Kalogeropoulos et al., 2017; Fletcher & Park, 2017) based on the Digital News Report Survey.
Lastly, one should be wary of too media-deterministic dispositions when further investigating the user/producer dimension in terms of power balances. The productive activity of news users does not necessarily move along the user/producer dimension in synchronisation with user empowerment. Increased activity might not necessarily lead to increased power. It is in that sense interesting to reminisce what David Morley (1992) said regarding the interpretative capabilities of television audiences: “the power of viewers to reinterpret meanings is hardly equivalent to the discursive power of centralized media institutions to construct the texts which the viewer then interprets” (p. 31). The same can be said about the user/producer dimension, where the possibility of users to make themselves heard through online platforms does not per definition mean a democratic redistribution of power along those lines. It will take more than new technologies to truly empower citizens.
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