Critically compare the different reactions of traditional media and citizen media creators to a local election.
This essay seeks to critically compare the differences of traditional media and citizen media creators in their reactions to a local election. A brief definition is given for local election to distinguish it from other forms of elections. Examples of traditional and citizen media forms will also be stated to facilitate a smoother discussion. The essay is structured in terms of the implications the media has for a local election. These include issues like public awareness, agenda setting, candidate advertising and levels of participation from the communities. The reactions of traditional media and citizen media creators are then assessed within those issues and the implications they have on a local election.
Definitions and examples
The legislation for a local election differs across different countries. But for illustration in this discussion, an Australian local election is used. Councils are part of the democratic framework of Australia local government. The community elects their Council Members every four years (LGA). The rules for elections are set out in the Local Government (Elections) Act 1999. Almost everyone 18 years of age and above who is living, owning or leasing property in a Council area are eligible to vote.
Examples of traditional media form or creators are TV, newspapers, magazines and radio. These traditional media creators have existed for a long time. They are more concerned with content making and are producer centric (Simons, 2007).
Citizen media creators on the other hand are bloggers, video bloggers (eg. YouTube) and podcasts makers. These media forms or creators are more concerned with contribution and participation rather than the amount of content which is generated (Giam, 2008). They usually make use of the internet as a platform to share and transmit messages. As there are very low barriers to entry via the internet, almost anyone with an opinion can become a citizen media creator. The basic tools are just a mobile phone or microphone, computer and internet access.
Creating public awareness
The primary aim of the media, be it traditional or citizen, is to create awareness and knowledge for the general public. As it is so stated by O’Sullivan et al (1991), its basic concern is “the act of channeling social knowledge and cultural values through an institutional agency to an audience”.
Although more research needs to be done on the role television has to play in terms of its influence on young voters, there is little doubt that television does affect the young voters’ choice (Gottlieb, 1992). One study has shown that while parental personal views seemed to be most crucial in determining political socialization in younger children, television plays a more important role in the political socialization of older children (Sears and Weber, 1988).
Another aspect by which traditional media creators react to a local election in terms of promoting public awareness is to report on the stands of the candidates on various issues the public is concerned with (Weaver, 1996, p. 39). In most cases, it is taken for granted that voters are informed of the political stands of their candidates. As a number of studies have been done with such concerns in mind, the findings are consistent with the view that exposure to television coverage of an election does increase public awareness of the candidates’ stand on various issues. However, the results are not true for newspapers. It is probably due to a decline in newspaper readership and circulation as more time is spent on viewing television.
But newspaper articles can be responsible for raising public awareness of a local election at a different level (Luttbeg, 1988). The effect is such that voters’ attendance is greater than expected if there has been a lack of newspaper coverage on a local election. Although such is the case, it was also found that identification of a specific medium as a main source of campaign information has nothing to do with the level of public awareness for the election campaign or activities.
Traditional media creators also react to a local election by providing coverage on debates of various issues (Weaver, 1996, p. 41). Such coverage is useful in contributing to swing voters’ knowledge accumulation of certain issues. For example, studies provided evidence of learning of candidate issue positions from the 1976 Carter-Ford debates among voters who had been unfamiliar with this information earlier (Sears and Chaffee, 1979). “Not all studies have found debate effects, but Kathleen Jamieson and David Birdsell’s review of the research concludes that ‘the educational impact of debates is surprisingly wide’ and ‘the ability of viewers to comment sensibly on the candidates and their stands on issues increases with debates.’” (Weaver, 1996, p. 41)
Now the non-traditional media or less mainstream forms of media, termed as citizen media generate public awareness of a local election at a different level. Citizen media creators are more concerned with creating an atmosphere of interest and an outlet for discussion on a local election (Giam, 2008). “Several studies have looked at the effects of nontraditional campaign media, such as television and radio talk shows, in the 1992 and 1994 elections. Although there was considerable speculation during the 1992 election that these newer media stimulated interest in the election and helped to increase voter knowledge, the evidence from the studies is mixed” (Weaver, 1996, p. 41).
Then take the case of Singapore where certain restrictions were placed to control the usage of blogs as means to criticize or give comments on the elections. But instead of restricting the number of blogs from surfacing on the political scene and having a voice to air citizens’ views, the population of local blogs had grown (Giam, 2008). Many had not paid attention to the authority’s warning. Those bloggers had gathered and generated topics covering issues on the election and which the traditional media had left out. Video clips on the opposition rally were captured by cell phones and posted on YouTube in spite of a contentious ban on videos with sensitive political themes. One particular example which stands out is “mrbrown”:
Local humour writer mrbrown created a series of digital audio recordings, dubbed “persistently non-political podcasts”, in a spoof of the minister’s warning. His podcasts used everyday Singaporean experiences to poke fun at various players in the election, particularly the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). One clip after the election results featured a student boasting to his friends that he scored 66.6% in his examinations. That figure was the percentage of the popular vote that the PAP had garnered, and which the mainstream media had proclaimed was a decisive victory. (Giam, 2008)
With such reactions from citizen media creators to elections held at a local level, one cannot hope to achieve an increase in the level of public awareness to the main issues of the election and of the election from these sources.
By definition agenda setting is a process whereby composition of the political agenda is affected by news coverage (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). It refers to the ability of the media to influence those issues, events, themes or candidates (in elections) that the public considers important enough to think about. The mass media increases the salience or mental image of some issues in the public’s agenda by devoting extensive news coverage to those issues while paying little or no attention to other issues. One of the examples is,
During the first 2 weeks of the 2005 British election campaign, for example, when thenews media devoted extensive coverage to Michael Howard’s speeches on immigration and refugees, this may have generated greater concern about this issue among the public (Norris, 2006, p. 8).
One of the methods in which traditional media creators react to a local election in terms of agenda setting is gate keeping (Bruns, 4 January, 2008). Back in the industrial age when there was limited number of printed and broadcast news channels, a top-down organizational structure in news production existed. The nature and type of news were determined by the mass media’s news editors and publishers. In other words, the journalistic publication was in the hands of these editors and publishers under an active process of gate keeping. Any news items which is deemed as insignificant, immaterial or does not appeal to the general public is left out or ignored (McCombs, June, 2002). In similar ways, traditional media forms choose some issues, candidates or political parties on which news coverage is given.
There has been a time when the hierarchical model of news production is necessary and the press’s role is that of a “watchdog”,
Journalism’s role as watchdog and informant for the wider citizenry was appropriate at a time when most citizens were unable to seek out a broad range of information sources for themselves; as direct access to such sources (ranging from first-hand reports from governments, companies, and NGOs to a diverse collection of news agencies and other information analysts and commentators) has improved, however, the famous New York Times slogan ‘all the news that’s fit to print’, which so very well encapsulates the gate keeping model, acquires an increasingly patronizing tone; the time for watchdogs is coming to a close. (Bruns, 4 January, 2008, p. 4)
An alternative media form has emerged to replace the ‘old’ and that is blogs (Giam, 2008). These blogs are set up by citizen media creators and they can take the role of watchdogs. So instead of gate keeping, the role of new media forms is one of gate watching,
Blogs can and are increasingly fulfilling the role of watchdogs, alternative news sources and even non-partisan political players because they are crossing beyond the boundary of their original uses as vehicles of personal expression. They have extended their reach to promote and debate topics as diverse as governance, integrity and fair dealing, and in doing so may affect positive changes. In countries with restrictive environments, it is important that bloggers be properly protected by law from arbitrary or unfair prosecution. Only by doing so can blogs become frontiers for the freedom of expression. (Gomez, 2005)
This current strengthening phenomenon which is happening in the media scene and similarly so in the political realm is termed generally as ‘citizen journalism’ (Bruns, 4 January, 2008 p. 8). These independent journalists set up personal blogs to conduct dialogues, forums and feedback sessions on topics generated or ignored by the mainstream media. In such situations, citizen media creators act as gate watchers, enhancing products created by traditional media. They do so by employing the means to spot and rectify inaccuracy, erroneous coverage and reports with loopholes. Therefore balancing the shortcomings presented by traditional media.
Although citizen media probably have taken up the role of policing media activities during a local election, their role have not taken over traditional media as the leading form of news source (Scott, June, 2005). Contrary to the popular belief that the emergence of citizen media creators has daunting effects on traditional media as gate keepers, one of the studies has found that belief to be unsupported. Traditional media still play a leading role in outlining and providing interesting coverage on a local election.
Candidate Advertising And Accountability
For every local election, the first form of reaction from the media is press advertisements (Ray, 24 November, 2005). They are the ground work from which other forms of campaign are generated. The advertisements are printed on newspapers with the most extensive flows within the local community. They carry information about key election issues and the candidates.
During the 2004 local government elections, the VEC placed 340 press advertisements in 55 newspapers across Victoria. Councils in western and southern Victoria also participated in shared radio advertising. Shared radio advertising again proved a particularly cost effective method for councils to increase voter awareness. Voter participation either increased or remained higher than the state average for the councils participating in this advertising. (Ray, 24 November, 2005).RVICES
According to one of the United States statistical studies, the probability in which the general public has of viewing political advertisements on local TV broadcasts is four times higher than that of watching regular news coverage on the elections (Estrich, Nov., 2002, p.1). At a state level, of the 4,850 local news TV coverage used in the survey, only 37%, approximately one third of the sample gave reports on the actual situation of the elections (Estrich, Nov., 2002, p. 1). On the other hand, close to three quarter of the local coverage contained one advertisement at minimum and more than 50 per cent contained not less than two ads. Within the scope of the study, the following data was collected from the sample,
On average, four campaign ads were aired for every one election-related story during local news broadcasts. During the average broadcast, voters saw just 39 seconds of total news coverage about political campaigns, but over a minute of political ads. (Estrich, Nov., 2002, p. 1)
Also Kenneth Goldstein, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project was quoted that, “Voters watching local news broadcasts are virtually guaranteed to see paid political advertising every night” (Estrich, Nov., 2002, p. 1). The data were collected for a period of one month from the highest rated early and late evening half-hours of regular news program over 122 non-systematically chosen stations in the best media field.
The other manner in which the tradition media is able to react during a local election is in terms of accountability (Decentralization Thematic Team, October, 2008). Accountability is an aspect of the process whereby local input is channeled into local governance. It is the extent to which local governments are able to account for or validate their actions or inactions to the public they serve. There are two aspects to this accountability. One of the aspects which this essay is to focus is that of elected officials to the citizenry. There are a couple of tools which are available to the voters to ensure accountability. The crucial point is being able to discover the activities of the candidates. At the basic grass root level, it is enough to discover such details by word of mouth. However, in order to delve further at a deeper level, certain forms of media become very important. In smaller countries, newspapers and magazines are sufficient to achieve the desired effects. But for countries with larger populations and land areas, another form of media is required. A media with transmission, i.e. the radio with its low wattage and highly local accessibility and low operational cost is necessary for such tasks. The radio is most useful in its ability to present talk shows and coverage on local issues.
The other source of accountability comes from citizen media creators (Bruns, 10 January, 2008). It can be seen surfacing from the development of the new move to generate news reports. It can be observed that a couple of attempts were made by the commercial news operators, eg. Australia’s public service broadcasters to collaborate with the citizen media creators. These attempts materialized in the form of the broadcasters’ own resemblance of citizen media ventures. These media ventures were carried out as reactions to the local election,
As part of its election coverage, ABC Online has operated a number of blog-style projects, including its “Opinion” and “Unleashed” sections of invited contributions from a diverse range of commentators, its “Unleashed” YouTube video channel, and The Poll Vault, a blog written by a number of its online staffers, as well as a Rural Election Blog and chief election analyst Antony Green’s Election Blog (Bruns, 10 January, 2008, p. 6).
Many of these blogs welcomed remarks and criticism from the general public. This active form of conversation and debate operates in opposition to the more traditional media products where no further improvement or adjustment is needed after publication.
Those blogs also act as opportunities for their users to be part of the reporting procedure whereby the candidates are held accountable for their actions and their election campaigns. Additional or alternative links are also provided under these blogs to provide a backdrop and perspective on the mainstream news about the election. Under this framework, platforms are opened for readers or viewers to voice up about the election which is otherwise quite unacheivable within the traditional media framework.
Participation and Community
One of the crucial differences between reactions of traditional and citizen media creators is based on the level of participation from the voters. With traditional media sources, news coverage is created substantially by the few editors, publishers and broadcasting corporations. The public generally has minimal or no say in the range or content of the news coverage. However, there is a total contrast with citizen media coverage of a local election. With citizen media sources, the bulk of news reporting and articles are generated by the end users themselves (Snurb, 25 June, 2008). Therefore a high level of participation for the circulation of the news is created. One of the projects which is started to study this aspect of contribution from the voters is Youdecide 2007. A few observations are made within the period when the site is in place,
The site was not necessarily able to deliver on an aim to generate more deliberative engagement in political issues; it remained largely news-driven and site managers were needed to generate seed content (so crowd sourcing by itself did not work). This may be a result of the relatively short lead-up time, however. It may not have been able to broaden participation beyond established ‘political junkies’, either; the most viewed materials were those that conformed to relatively conventional news production values. Also, the election context itself encouraged partisanship rather than reflection. (Snurb, 25 June, 2008)
Citizen journalism as one of the media creators not only carries out its role as a gate watcher as it is previously stated in this essay. It has a major role to play in terms of collecting and constructing a multi range of participation within the community of voters:
it adds broad, multi perspective analysis and commentary on news events to the inevitably narrow range of perspectives expressed in mainstream news reporting; building on committed interest communities, its sites are able to engage in a more ongoing, longitudinal fashion with key themes in the news, from hyper local news to high-end consumer technology to addressing climate change; and by employing the gate watching model which highlights and contrasts the information passing through the output gates of a wide variety of news sources and publications, its participants act both as guide dogs for one another, helping their peers make sense of the abundance of information now available to them on virtually any topic. (Bruns, 4 January, 2008, pp. 9-10).
It cannot be denied that efforts are made by corporate stations, be it nationally or privately own, to set up or create online news reporting from the voters. But these efforts are not sufficient to produce and expand into a community which is purely ‘local’ with the objectives to achieve news reporting with a citizen perspective (Bruns, 4 January, 2008). The reason why the attempts may be unsuccessful is due to poor staffing within those corporations. But more teamwork or projects between the stations and the citizen journalists can possibly solve the problems. Under such a collaboration framework, coverage of local issues or debates is done by citizen media groups with additional help from traditional media creators. The whole process of checking and production of news coverage with quality is achieved by traditional media staff working beside the citizen media creators. Valuable information is highlighted and sieved through before entering as news reports into the mainstream. In the same way news articles from the mainstream coverage get to go through the online channels with additional appraisal and expansion. A system of reactions and responses thus surfaces with more news topics emerging as follow-up reports.
In order for the idea that the level of participation is a main difference between the reactions of traditional and citizen media creators to a local election to be fully appreciated, the concept of ‘produsage’ is to be pointed out. Within the concept of produsage is a relatively new form of news production which occurs in a dual directional and shared state or system (Bruns, 4 March, 2007, p. 3). Under such a system, the traditional roles of a producer and end users are not distinct or differentiated. Instead, the users are themselves the producers. Everyone within the system is a participant in information production and knowledge accumulation. Thus the term ‘produsers’ where there is a fusion of the roles users and producers.
For this pool of ‘produsers’ or voters to be tapped for their knowledge base, they have to be engaged as a community. An example is found in Hearst-Argyle’s WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H. where voters are given a voice using online coverage (Digital Campaign Coverage, 6 July, 2008). In this particular case, a social networking site, Gather.com, is used to engage bloggers in debating issues covering the local election. Voters are further given the options to watch in real time responses to these debates via “instant response polling” and those with internet can find out about the debates which are conducted online. There is little doubt that such tools or collaborations enable the level of participation within the community to be brought further up.
It is probably easy to note that citizen media creators thrive on the basis of community. Therefore every effort is made to engage and attract users to the online sites by providing updated materials and responses from other users (Flew and Wilson, 28 July, 2008, p.27). It is also to ensure that the community of online users gets larger over time. But the user-generated nature of the system does not remove the limitations of the uneven distribution of skills, prior knowledge and concerns carried over by the community. So it is necessary to develop a pool of core-providers within the community to generate the major portion of the stories for the sites (Flew and Wilson, 28 July, 2008, p.28). A sense of ownership and initiative for action has to be present within these individuals.
It is also good to examine one other form of participation from the voters. So far most of the campaigns discussed in this essay are generated by traditional media. But unlike those campaigns, interactive campaigns are user-centric rather than producer-centric (Lusoli, 2005, p. 155). The use of internet has changed the direction of political communications from top down to point-to-point. Currently the situation is where the dynamics of communication are between the voters within the community. For those whose age is 18-25, the internet means an interaction which is network based rather than region based. The nature of interaction releases participation purely based on the traditional media creators and their gate keeping roles.
It also matters that the element of interactivity is present in political communication during the election. It affects the way voters view the candidates and their positions on the policies.
Focus groups research on the 2000 US election found a broader range of advantages of internet use, including control over the experience, interaction with the campaign and a positive appreciation of ‘creative elements that foster a sense of fun’. On the one hand, the number of candidates offering interactivity and the range of services – e-mail feedback, online discussion boards, blogs – have expanded over time in many western democracies. On the other hand, most analysts agree that online campaigns are not truly interactive, as website interactivity is fabricated to have the citizen-consumer on the site for as long and as frequently as possible. During the 2002 US election, ‘citizens’ responded to the lack of interactivity and top-down nature of candidates’ websites by ‘forwarding campaign e-mail less often than jokes about the campaigns’. But do voters really care about interactivity? According to early evidence, voters went on-line to express opinions, to state facts about one’s life and voting intentions and to post information about the candidates. (Lusoli, 2005, p. 155)
It helps the voters work through who or what to vote for in a local election. It also works in such a way that the voters affect one another in the decision making process before they finally cast their votes.
With this critical comparison of the reactions between traditional and citizen media creators to a local election, it was not hard to observe that the crucial differences came from the content and sources of information. For traditional media creators, they had been deployed to cover publicity and advertising issues which concerned the candidates and their stands on the various policies. It was important to note that these people were paid to perform their jobs. On the other hand, citizen media creators were self motivated. They sprang from communities within the population of voters to give voice to the local citizens. They offered an alternative media form or system where feedback and reflection could be surfaced. Although this alternate media system had its limitations in terms of the uneven distribution of skills and knowledge brought in, it could be improved upon with help from mainstream media. Therefore hope for a better system of news coverage could come from collaboration and projects carried out between the press, TV and radio stations and the bloggers and vloggers.
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