From the People For the People

Although used increasingly in U.S. media, citizen reporters in Austria haven't gone mainstream yet. Or have they?

Janne Virkkunnen, former chairman of the International Press Institute, at the World Congress Farewell Dinner in Bratislava | Photo: David Reali

When a Virginia Tech student shot 32 people in April 2007, it was not a professional cameramen who first shot scenes of the dramatic events, but a graduate student on his cell phone, who then uploaded them on YouTube. Within minutes, thousands had accessed the videos. Later, the footage went on to iReport, a CNN platform that allows the public to submit photographs, movie clips and reports on news events.

By involving untrained private individuals in the newsgathering process, CNN had simply responded to a trend. Non-professionals are increasingly using new technology and social media platforms such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook to gather, disseminate and even analyze information – a task formerly reserved to editors. Additionally, audio and visual material by citizens is showing up in U.S. newspapers and on air, as news organizations (like The Huffington Post) are increasingly relying on non-professionals as information providers.

From objects to subjects, from passive viewers to active participators – “People formerly known as the audience are more and more becoming part of the medium,” states the 2010 annual report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an American non-profit research organization.

“The media world has changed with astonishing speed,” said Janne Virkkunnen, former chairman of the International Press Institute (IPI), in his opening speech at the organization’s World Congress, held in Vienna in September. “The questions are many, and the answers are few.” Shifting economic trends have resulted in a declining number of foreign correspondents – a void that has been filled in part by ordinary people acting as “citizen reporters.”

The phenomenon of citizen journalism has its roots in the U.S., where “public distrust of the mainstream media and a disillusionment with politics triggered a movement of people who decided they would take the information gathering process into their own hands,” explains Nikolaus Jilch, a journalist at the Austrian monthly Datum who has done extensive research on citizen reporters and bloggers.

While this movement has gained momentum in America, on the other side of the Atlantic citizen reporters appear to be less common.

Austria, with its small size, has a good range of national, regional and local papers that cover the area, unlike the U.S. where regional newspapers are in decline. The phenomenon of citizen journalism is developing proportionally with the fall of “thriving news organizations who share a passion to cover the world in a fierce, independent way,” explains Charles M. Sennott of the Global Post.

“In Austria, the trend is not as strong as in the U.S. but it exists,” adds Elisabeth Wasserbauer, director of the Austrian Media Academy (KFJ), headquartered in Salzburg.

Michael Lang, editor-in-chief of the Austrian Press Agency (APA), agrees. Citizens have an increasing desire to publish their work and many news organizations today tend to “tie the information knot more tightly on the local level,” which can be done more cheaply by non-professionals. “I do see this tendency,” he told The Vienna Review. But as a professional journalist, he “can’t make much out of it.” (do much with it?)

It is quite understandable that professional journalists tend not to be the ones most enthusiastic about the trend toward citizen reporters – which may be rendering their professions obsolete. Professional journalists point out the criteria that citizen reporters do not fulfill – use of different sources and journalistic styles, in-depth research, fact-checking, good storytelling, and contextualizing, among others. “Not everybody can do that,” Wasserbauer emphasizes, with understatement.

But what function do citizen reporters serve in the overall journalistic enterprise?

The general consensus seems to be that journalistic work by non-professionals can be a good additional source in three distinct forms, and is already being put to test in some areas.

One niche for citizen-reporters is event-related – unforeseeable events such as natural catastrophes. But “90% of our journalistic activity does not consist of these things – most of it can be planned,” Lang admits.  Additionally, when citizens have a certain expertise in an area, their reporting “might be interesting for special local or niche stories,” Wasserbauer and Lang agree.

But it is attentive citizens approaching media organizations with stories and ideas who make up the lion’s share of non-professional participation in journalism.

“And still a useful one,” says Brigitte Handlos, head of the editorial department “Chronik” at the ORF, the Austrian Broadcasting Service. In the world of print media, too, interesting ideas and information are followed up on.

Regarding the professional-citizen divide, Der Standard editor-in-chief Alexandra Föderl-Schmid maintains, “it has always been like that,” adding, however, that “the audience is becoming more active. E-mail facilitates this.”

Especially for investigative papers like the Austrian weekly Falter, it is “the only form of collaboration with average citizens in terms of reporting,” Falter journalist Stefan Apfl tells The Vienna Review.

The importance of fact-checking and professional research that ensures journalistic integrity remains. Copyright considerations also play an important role and helps explain the reluctance of the Austrian media to incorporate more material by non-professionals in their programs and publications.

“Citizen journalists offering their material either sign a form and get a fee – or not. Since there is no standardized procedure, things can get very complicated,” Handlos explained. (“When there is no contractual relationship with the publishing medium,” Lang commented, “quality standards cannot be enforced.”)

To deal with this problem, the ORF is working on a platform that will allow users to upload videos and offer their content online. By filling out a form, they register, and receive information about their copyright and fee. The ORF hopes to launch this new platform next year after it has been integrated into their existing system. For now, Handlos will continue to tell her co-workers not to forget about YouTube when doing research.

“Let’s say Gablenzgasse in Vienna was flooded, and we needed pictures and videos. What would we do?” she asks. “Go to YouTube.”

Recognizing the potential of YouTube, ATV, one of Austria’s private TV stations has come up with its own platform where users can upload videos on their profiles. Every week, the funniest and most original videos are highlighted on the website. An incorporation of the videos in the channel’s news shows, however, is not planned.

“So far, we have not received any videos with news content,” says Marion Broser, Diversification and Online Manager of the TV station. “Also, there is no demand, really. ATV is not perceived as a ‘news channel’ by the audience, but rather as an entertainment one.”

For the time being, the channel focuses on linking the material to the local level, thus establishing a more intimate relationship with the audience. “When the locations are tagged, users can navigate on a map to find videos from their district or city,” Boser explains.

Citizen journalism in Austria generally seems to be more geared towards connecting the audience to the medium and not so much to provide information.

While TV stations in the country are already using audio and video material from the audience, APA chief Lang remains skeptical. A project on the semi-professional level in which non-professionals would feed information into a database has turned out not to be a “sustainable concept,” he argues.

Der Standard’s Föderl-Schmid agrees. “Generally, one needs to differentiate between print and online,” she said. It is in the online services where she expects citizen journalism to play a bigger role in the future.

No matter where and when content – generated and offered by the non-professional – enters the mainstream media, Lang stresses, “editorial filters will definitely be needed to ensure quality standards.”

Nonetheless, the overall consensus seems to favor a complementary function for citizen reporters, fed into the standard procedures of trained reporters’ work.

Wasserbauer concludes: “It simply doesn’t work without professional journalists.”

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