The benefits (and challenges) of user-generated news

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A old telegraph machine
Image by tibchris via Flickr

I’ve spent the last ten days with no Internet and very little access to English-language news sources. On my return I turned to my three favourite sources for getting up to speed quickly on what’s been happening: BBC News, Twitter and Google. The first of these for an overview of what had happened and the last two to really delve into some depth, to find out what people have been saying and to see what’s really been happening.

It turns out I missed a lot.

Only a few years ago, my main source of information on anything from the events in Iran, to the events in Los Angeles would have been a printed newspaper or magazine. I could have picked up one of the weeklies at Heathrow airport on Sunday and found out most of what there was for me to find out on the journey home. Today things are very different. There’s a vast array of information out there from news outlets to people like you and me. People who might (at least claim that they) know more than the new outlets, or at least are more willing to tell us.

Both the aftermath of the Iran election and the death of Michael Jackson have highlighted the role that users can play in generating  news content. Keeping us up-to-date on what they are seeing, hearing and thinking. And often doing this more quickly than traditional news sources. The way we find out about what is happening is now quicker than ever  before.

Speed of reporting is important for news and has been the focus of many important developments. The Crimean war in the 1850s saw the arrival of reporting that must have felt to readers of the day like ‘real-time’ updates. For the first time, electric telegraph enabled news to travel across Europe in hours and not weeks. People could find out what was happening at the Front. This was a real revolution. The increased speed at which we could get news and reporting changed what people wrote about and how they wrote about it – the birth of the ‘embedded’ journalist with the troops. This was the first time people could hear about battles and what was happening in the war whilst they were still pertinent. People felt they knew more and knew more quickly. They felt like they could change things.

And the use of user-generated news is bringing similar changes thanks to the speed at which it is letting people tell us what they are seeing and hearing. This is changing the kind of news we are exposed to. Whereas previously we would see reports that a journalist had crafted and would assess how much credit we gave to that particular journalist, source or publication. We are now getting snippets of information from multiple sources and each time  have to assess what we think about that source and that piece of information. The many thousands of comments an news-snippets on Twitter about Iran or Michael Jackson need to be evaluated  – which do we trust (and why); which are we interested in find out more about (and why); which snippets when put together give us a fuller picture of events (and why).

There is a danger with this kind of news. A danger that people will question less and that things that are not true or have less critical appraisal will start to influence what we think and what we do. I’m more optimistic. I think that the  massive growth in real-time news will make us be more critical and help teach us to process this new kind of information – taking in more from a wider range of sources and filtering out what we don’t trust and query things by looking for other sources. This has to be a good thing.

And of course it means that we will get this information quicker than ever before. What this means for traditional news outlets is probably another story…

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