Gathering Citizen Content: Pull vs. Push
by Jason Spingarn-Koff
Assignment 3 for the Knight-Mozzilla Learning Lab
Last week Mohamed Nanabhay (Head of Online at Al Jazeera English) wisely observed that news organizations are “no longer the sole arbiters of what people see and how they are represented.”
He recalled that while covering the Egyptian uprising on January 23rd, the network was flooded with “citizen media” that it didn’t produce, often raw footage with natural sound shot on cellphones by protesters or bystanders. He said that Al Jazeera’s news gathering strategy is evolving to increasingly “go out and find citizen content.”
So, as a News Lab member inquired: as news organizations place increasing emphasis on citizen content, is it better to have the pubic send in material or to pull material from sites such as Youtube?
This question is central to the justification for my project CrowdCam, and so I’ll reflect on two different news gathering approaches for citizen media, which I dub Pull vs. Push.
In this approach, embraced by Al Jazeera, news organizations curate existing “citizen content” by pulling it from websites. The footage is free; avoids ethical and legal pitfalls of putting citizens in harm’s way; and taps into existing citizen practices and technologies. Yet the footage lacks exclusivity (i.e. anyone can get the same video off Youtube); there are vast amounts of material to verify and curate; and this passive approach is quite tedious and slow. Here’s a clip from Reuters, posted to Youtube.
Note the curious feedback loop: Content is posted by citizens to Youtube, compiled and curated by Reuters, then reposted to Youtube (another feedback loop is poetically reflected in the photo: a cellphone camera photographs another cellphone camera). Amateurs can remix and edit their own compilations, and the results are often far more popular than the efforts by news orgs. This amateur video has received 2M+ million views while the Reuters compilation has only 28K views.
In contrast to the above approach is CNN’s iReport, which pushes out specific calls for citizen “assignments.” Then CNN posts what they get back. Using this method, how can CNN guarantee quality and journalistic integrity?
It’s not easy. Note how CNN nervously places this pop-up disclaimer on every page (until disabled by the user): “The stories in this section are not edited, fact-checked, or screened before they post.”
To its credit, CNN employs a reputation system to help viewers vet the credibility of the source. One user, “Bhatnewpics” (a self-described journalist, PR professional, social worker, and former farmer), has somehow had the time and motivation to upload 866 iReports.
The BBC has embraced a bit of a hybrid approach: pushing out requests and then pulling in citizen media. There’s a call for submissions upload page backed by an impressive User Generated Content division, with more than 20 employees, to carefully vet the quality, provenance, and authenticity of the submissions. Note the language: “If you have a news photograph or video that you have taken” (my emphasis). I may be reading to much into the passive voice, but it seems an intentional effort to not actively solicit “assignments” that may put citizens in harm’s way and to reduce the BBC’s ethical and legal liability.
Notably, the BBC includes this disclaimer:
This points to a cautiousness on behalf of news organizations to become more directly involved with citizen newsgathering. Mohamed Nanabhay also seems wary of the approach, saying “you can’t expect people to send you good content.”
There’s no doubt the above Pull and Push approaches can be useful, but they’re both limited: slow paced during fast-moving events, requiring intensive resources to vet and curate citizen media, and there’s little guarantee of quality.
My project, CrowdCam, proposes a bold new approach: a request-based system that allows a news organization to get exactly what it wants, fast. This is possible through the power of live 2-way links between newsrooms and citizens via video enabled mobile phones, enhanced by geolocation, a marketplace, and a strong reputation layer to encourage transparency and quality. There are challenges — such as establishing a community with wide geographic reach, tapping into appropriate technology, and encouraging new user behaviors — but I believe such a transformative system is inevitable.