Al Jazeera's lesson for Networked Science Journalism

Whose Web, by M-C, In Democracy’s Forth Wave: Digital Media and the Arab Spring, Howard and Hussain provide many compelling explanations of how and why digital and social media platforms including SMS, Twitter, Facebook and blogs played a role in recent political changes in the Arab Spring.

“Democratization movements had existed long before technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet came to these countries. But with these technologies, people sharing an interest in democracy built extensive networks, created social capital and organized political action.” - Philip Howard

The authors provide many examples of new media and the tools of Web 2.0 at work for political change: tech-savvy activists using blogs when traditional journalists were being silenced; citizens using Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and news neglected by state media; protesters using mobile phone SMS technologies to organize while evading government surveillance. Howard and Hussain propose that social media enable a “cognitive liberation” whereby citizens can share common grievances and mobilize others though a digitally-enabled collective consciousness, so to speak. [As an aside, I think it would be interesting to know whether people engaged in social media can better identify common grievances during a political uprising than those not as engaged in these platforms.]

“In each country, people used digital media to build a political response to a local experience with injustice. They were not inspired by Facebook but by the real tragedies documented on Facebook. Social media have become the scaffolding upon which a functioning civil society can grow, and new information technologies afford activists freedoms they did not have before: information networks not easily controlled by the state and coordination tools that are already embedded in trusted networks of family and friends.” - Democracy’s Forth Wave

But Howard and Hussain bring out a theme in the Arab Spring narrative that I think is often neglected in stories about how social media prompt and enable grassroots change. That is, how mainstream media outlets can amplify social media content.

Howard and Hussain dedicate several chapters to showing the impact of Al Jazeera’s innovative use of user-generated content during the Arab Spring. A broadcast news media organization that has been praised for free exchange of information in the Arab world, Al Jazeera converted much of its news product for social dissemination, releasing content under Creative Commons, for example, and leveraging citizen journalism in its news reporting.

“Al Jazeera has been the most adept and autonomous at keeping up with media habits and demands of people in the region. […]. Since 2008, Al Jazeera English has laid the groundwork for a unique style of storytelling that presents compelling narratives, but also a mix of citizens’ voices with political elites. ” - Democracy’s Forth Wave

My challenge to news media organizations today is to take the same forward-looking approach to user-generated content, in not just the political arena, but other arenas of investigative journalism (science being my key go-to, of course). No, specialized science journalists in the US aren’t being silenced, arrested and worse by oppressive regimes. But the profession as we traditionally conceive of it is imperiled, for a variety of reasons.

But I feel that many of us are approaching this problem by trying to re-establish what that was, or at least figuring out new ways to preserve our old models of who a specialized science reporter is, what he or she does, how he or she gets paid, and what the investigative science journalism product looks like. But what if the one specialized voice trained in science journalism to the many audience ears simply isn’t a viable model anymore?

Al Jazeera English clearly embraced the idea of networked journalism, which Jeff Jarvis says occurs when “professionals and amateurs (are) working together to get the real story.” The question is, how can we get more media organizations to also embrace this idea on a variety of topics?

“News distribution is no longer a one-way street – with the professional journalists doing the reporting and the audiences passively ingesting whatever comes their way. Audiences are increasingly involved in news production in ways impossible a decade ago. Twitter feeds, social media feedback, blog posts and reader comments all represent methods that audiences can interact with journalists regarding news content.” - Matt J. Duffy

Jarvis’ conception of networked journalism emphasizes collaboration and the sharing of sources – a new way to look at how journalism is produced and what the product feels like (closed and finished vs. open and evolving). This concept of news production is being embraced by some next generation outlets – and for some ‘beats’ – more than others.

Unfortunately, I think many scientists and science journalists automatically discount this option for news production as impractical. Audiences don’t have the knowledge or motivation to contribute facts, corrections, perspective or analysis to news on scientific issues, we argue. But I think that depending on who our audiences are, and how we define useful perspective and analysis, networked approaches to investigative science reporting could be viable, indeed powerful.

In 2008, Scientific American started an experiment in networked journalism, inviting readers to shape the content of a feature article on Science 2.0 through their own questions and comments. When I searched Scientific American for other “Edit This” features, however, I came up empty-handed. So I went to Twitter and asked SciAm Chief Editor Mariette DiChristina what had ever happened to the experiment in networked journalism.

@FromTheLabBench @sciam Ppl didn't participate that well. But watch this space.

— Mariette DiChristina (@mdichristina) February 18, 2014

I’m taking her response to be an indication that participatory forms of science reporting might be in Scientific American’s future. I should certainly hope that one failed attempt at this approach would be followed up with attempts using different participation strategies and infrastructures (not just through standard comments and questions). There is no doubt in my mind that plenty of academics, scientists, science students, aspiring science writers, science enthusiast business professionals and others are using social media as we speak to contribute their own knowledge and build their own narratives around ongoing scientific issues. If these people are motivated to blog and otherwise discuss science via social media, surely they would be motivated to contribute to networked science journalism at Scientific American? In my opinion, it’s finding the right avenue for their participation, the way that they want it, that could make all the difference.

I left this here, by See-ming Lee,

“Science 2.0 seems dangerous: using blogs and social networks for your serious work feels like an open invitation to have your online lab notebooks vandalized-or worse, have your best ideas stolen and published by a rival… The acceptance of any such measure would require a big change in the culture of academic science.” – Mitch Waldrop

But I’m by far an expert in this area. I’ve been hunting the web today for examples of networked science journalism, but have yet to find great examples. I think this is happening in small places online - communities of scientists or science writers coming together to blog collaboratively in the production of a single big-picture story, or bloggers fielding questions and outside knowledge from their readers. But I’d love to know of bigger examples, in growing or mainstream news outlets.

So if YOU know of any networked science journalism efforts going on, please comment below, e-mail me or tweet @FromTheLabBench!