2020 has been an apocalyptic year. And we are only half way through it. As the world falls apart around us, with a global pandemic brought on by the spread of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests that took over streets in the US and several other countries, we find ourselves trying desperately to make sense of the new emerging reality.
This is where journalism comes in. The profession was tasked with showing us what was happening beyond our daily lives all around the world. And, though that remains, internet, social media and smartphones made sure journalism is not alone in that capability.
“I can’t breathe”. The words that would be spoken by thousands of protesters across the world where captured on camera by a 17 year old with a smartphone. It all started when Darnella Frazier, a high school student, took out her phone and filmed the police restraining a black man on the street.
He was already on the ground and gasping for air when her footage starts. For 10 minutes and nine seconds she kept the video going, capturing the moment that would spark a revolution throughout the United States – the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25th 2020. George Floyd became the symbol for Black Lives Matter protests across every state in the United States. The video of his death was unequivocal proof of what had happened. Racism has always existed. Black men and women have been killed by the police before and after what happened with Mr. Floyd. But by getting the event on camera, Mrs. Frazier changed the story. Changed how it was told and its impact.
What would have happened if there had been no video? If the footage had not been spread online? If the images hadn’t been picked up and divulged by news organizations? There are many “what ifs” that could be asked, but fact of the matter is, the video, captured by a regular person, on her daily life, that made the choice to stop and record what she was seeing, brought a shift in our reality.
The web and an assortment of new digital tools provided infinite ways and spaces for the public to create, post and share content. And as digital media and the internet changed journalism, and took away it exclusive capacity of reporting on news, the profession was faced with some serious choices: should we include the public in news reporting? Should we give them spaces to participate?
Each news organization has their particular answer to these questions, and decide privately how they will engage their public and encourage participation. The “how”, “when” and “why” come down to each newsroom answering “what do we want?” when it comes to their relationship with the audience. But what the end-of-the-world scale events of 2020 have thought us is that you cannot disregard the public and the content they generate.
Social media has been flooded by users views, with videos, photos and texts that tell a story of the events they are living through and witnessing in their part of the world. We are now seeing the protests through the eyes of those who have taken to the streets to call for racial equality.
This is not to say that journalism isn’t reporting on these events, or that there aren’t practical and ethical discussions that come from content generated by users, such as matters of accuracy, credibility and truth. The thing is, this content is out there. People have access to it. And journalism faces a choice: do we include it into our news reporting? Do we call the public to send this content to our newsrooms? Do we open spaces to listen to the people in the our sites?
We can’t do journalism without considering what we want from the public and from the relationship we build with our audience. For research, this means we can’t study journalism without considering the public either. Whatever the future of the profession may be, it depends on understanding how people navigate and engage the digital news environment.
This PhD explores the Politics and Ethics of User-Generated Content in Journalism. We believe that talking about User-Generated Content in the profession, allows us to debate the essential and evolving relationship between audience and news. We investigate what spaces are concretely created for public participation, what are the discourses regarding the role of the audience in digital journalism and how it relates to each news organization’s editorial line and business model. These times of crisis have shown us that the public is making news. But it is up to each company to choose how to engage the audience and if they are going to give the public a relevant space in their journalism beyond consumer.