Co-Creation for News – Community Media Insights

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“There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process” (Arnstein, 1969, p. 217).

In their paper The Co-Creational Model for the News Media, Jonathan Heawood and Fabienne Peter (Heawood & Peter, 2023) discuss the challenge of sustaining a purposeful approach to news media production that is grounded in both social agreement and underpinned by a form of epistemological certainty most commonly characterised as truthfulness. Heawood and Peter argue that the recent transformations in communication systems, especially those wrought by the internet, globalisation, and the decentralisation of the communications process, have combined to elicit a diminution of institutional authority for formerly dominant news organisations.

We are challenged, Heawood and Peter argue, by a displacement of the previously trusted institutions and structures that assisted with the arbitration of matters of public concern. This displacement has reached the point, moreover, where news producers are having an increasingly difficult time maintaining social authority, because they can no longer rely on established and homogeneous principles of news production, nor can they rely on consistent and agreed methods of epistemological validation. To put this simply, as the mechanisms of news production and consumption have changed, so have the means by which objectivity and truth are professed, validated and understood.

Heawood and Peter assert that, as a result of these changes, it is necessary for us to explore different approaches to news systems development, with a reorientation of our thinking regarding the mechanism by which we originate, produce and distribute news. These co-production and participatory approaches identified by Heawood and Peter, have the potential to go beyond inherited and legacy notions of discrete news production systems, along with their accompanying assertions of empirical truthfulness. We should instead explore, Heawood and Peter suggest, how co-production principles of community involvement might be more fruitfully incorporated into the news development and management process, given that they are techniques for making sense of the world that offer a more sustainable approach to collective communications exchange, taking into account our changed, networked and decentralised circumstances.

As many commentators have noted, news forms the basis of modern public information processes, in which information is created and exchanged by sovereign rational agents acting in a marketplace of ideas, which is in turn dependent on a symbolic infrastructure afforded by the use-value of facts (Habermas, 1989, 1994). Put simply, assertions that are supported by demonstrable and repeated evidence become verifiable and mutually agreeable facts. However, because the modernist paradigm is defined by realist modes of thought, these forms of communications exchange, which relate to different events and occurrences happening the in the world, i.e. the social phenomena we commonly call news, are often assumed only to be valid because they come with a verifiable epistemological underpinning, or intrinsic ‘truth-value’, rather than other forms of meaningfulness and cognitive apprehension. Therefore, because news plays a vital role in serving the wider functioning and aims of society, it is possible to assimilate many forms of news and information exchange into a practical process of debate and deliberation that itself informs our social priorities. This reciprocal process of validation enables our ongoing social development in different ways and for different purposes, and as required at many specific times and in particular places. Without epistemologically objective news, it is argued, we would find it difficult to place our collective feet on solid ground and move forward.

Moreover, our present existential anxiety about the purpose of news, itself demonstrates an ongoing concern that the precepts of meaning making are themselves becoming somewhat shaky, which is in turn a manifestation of our growing uncertainty about our ability to articulate anything that feels ‘truthful’ or which has ‘truthfulness’ (Anderson, 2019; Severan, 2021). The question of how we produce and share meaningful information in a manner that has symbolic resonance within different communities is clearly increasingly important. For example, the misinformation we see across many news and media platforms has been produced on an industrial scale, and is a clear, fundamental and alarming problem that many agree must be overcome for the wider benefit of civic society.

Misinformation, however, is not the only phenomenon that is undermining trust in information exchange. The marketisation of information and the simulation of news by the public relations industry is also presenting challenges for those who seek to assert trustfulness as a social value in communication. As public relations and marketing departments now dominate the civic realm, many governments, NGOs, businesses and public organisations are increasingly preoccupied with massaging public perceptions about their operations and function in modern democracies. We’ve clearly got a problem when public organisations fund extensive Press and PR departments at the expense of service delivery. A resolution to these difficulties, however, may not come by fighting fire with water. We clearly need a different approach.

Heawood and Peter’s report, which was the product of a set of conversations with emerging news producers, many of whom operate outside of the traditional industrial news infrastructure, notes that co-creational media organisations differ in important regards from traditional news producer models, particularly those associated with industrial systems, and more recently those that are driven by social networking technologies. Heawood and Peter list these modalities as the ‘professional model’, the ‘libertarian model’ and the ‘social model’. Each being commonly recognisable and experienced in relation to specialised news producers, such as newspapers, broadcasters and more recently social media aggregation services. These news systems represent a familiar pattern of process-driven forms of media and content production and exchange, which are in turn related to established epistemological aims, such as the conveyance of a sense of ‘truthfulness’.

We can summarise Heawood and Peter’s proposition, then, as one in which the paradigm of discreate and discernible social value that has principally driven the news articulation process, must now be augmented with the emergence of the ‘co-creational model’, whereby a robust ‘participatory principle’ is presumed to hold equal relevance with the related imperatives and modalities of communication exchange and empirical viability. This participatory modality is well mapped in relation to other forms of self-managed media, such as alternative, DIY and community media. Chris Atton usefully points out that “self-managed media are about participation and communication through self-awareness,” which is established and promoted because of the high degree of “reflexivity” that is experienced between the “members of a collective, who must remain sensitive to the cultural and political conditions that affect their organisational choices” (Atton, 2002, p. 99).

Essentially, participation has become desirable as a process of development at the same time that media systems have changed. So, as previously impermeable boundaries between producers and consumers have become diffused, and with each new wave of technology, the former boundaries are dissolved. With each new leap of imagination there is a fuelling of further changes. Changes in data management, media production capability and network communication technology result, similarly, in changes in expectations of what media affords and what media enables (McLuhan, 1962; McLuhan, 1964; McLuhan, 1967). As Heawood and Peter note in their findings, “co-creational media organisations serve their communities by taking responsibility for the epistemic value of the journalism they publish on their behalf,” which is in turn recognised for its social value within a “dynamic ecosystem of interlocking communities;” which in turn also affects and shapes the news reporting that is held to be useful and valid. Meaningfulness, whether it is manifested as news, information or simple storytelling, we must remember, is an emergent and dynamic process of hermeneutic development, and not simply a static transaction of exchange.

We can learn more about these principles of co-production and participation if we reflect on the methodology that drives alternative and community media. Community media has long been described as a co-creational process that provides individuals, members of communities and citizens, the opportunity to take part in making media for themselves, and to have control over the means of communication production. The principle aim of much of community media practice, then, is to facilitate the inclusion of people in the process of media production in meaningful ways, as they seek to represent themselves, deliberate with other members of their community, and exchange knowledge and improve understanding with and between other people in other communities. Voice empowerment through participative media practice is, as Bailey et al remind us, a process that is community-driven, which aims to provide opportunities for involvement in the communications process in the form of both “produced content and the content producing organisation” (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 13).

As Chris Atton notes, forms of alternative and community media have long sought to promote democratic opportunities for involvement in the media production process by “people who are normally excluded from media production” platforms and systems (Atton, 2002, p. 4). This process of involvement in civic exchange, as Robert Fowler Booth similarly notes, emphasises the “importance of people deciding together, face to face, conversing with and respecting each other in a setting which is as equal as possible”(Booth, 1995, p. 88). But while there is no clear and simple way to explain the multifaceted role of community media, it is possible to highlight several recuring practices and principles.

Most relevant here is the participative principle, whereby community media advocates and community media makers focus on media that is made by rather than for people (Watson, 2018). This DIY attitude asserts that media has to be de-professionalised in order to make it accessible (Williams, 2014). DIY forms of community and alternative media come with a commitment to building capacity for communications exchange, and a focus on bottom-up media literacies and production skills. People have to learn to interact and deliberate, so any assumption that healthy intercultural community cohesion appears on its own terms, is perhaps optimistic (Cantle, 2012). The focus on participation, as we are reminded by Bailey et al, needs to “distinguish between participation in media and through media,” which is similar to the way that we must also “distinguished between democratisation in and through the media.” To be an advocate of participation in and through the media, as Bailey et al remind us, we are required to think about the “communicative process not as a series of practices that are often restrictively controlled by media professionals, but as a human right that cuts across entire societies” (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 11).

The best way to keep our democracy functioning, as Amitia Etzioni notes, is to foster and support a process of “principled decentralisation,” whereby “communities, institutions, and individuals” are given “responsibility to cultivate a variety of different [platforms] so that alternative voices are expressed” (Etzioni, 1995, p. 11). By reframing the process of news, therefore, towards a clear social purpose that is driven by the participation imperative, whereby we ask what the sustainable and inclusive outcomes for social democracy might be from our practice, means that we must ask a whole series of additional questions to those typically associated with reporting and information exchange.

How can we demonstrate that participants gain both individual and collective self-confidence when stories and reports are generated by them and shared with others? How can we demonstrate that participants in the news process are more publicly spirited, and are able to add to the collective sense of unity, by being involved in the news production process? How does news contribute to a cohesive society and not leave people living parallel lives? To what extent can people exercise real civic and personal freedom, while still drawing on the strength of communal relationships? What power will participants need to shape the political, social and economic environments that determine social interaction?

If participatory models of democracy are to be brought into the news system, the reorientation that Heawood and Peter hint at must be expanded, so that we can successfully build social capacity for structural reform at many fundamental levels, not just for news. We need to look at media literacies, civic literacies, deliberative processes, knowledge exchange and management processes, to name only a few. Putting in place these wider reforms will take time to bring them about, and will only become real when our efforts of social and community capacity-building for news and information exchange within society, match the expectations of the democratic policy makers, advocates, activists and producers of all socially-focussed media content. The pressure of climate crisis, however, suggests that we don’t have time to prevaricate making this shift.

The advantage of getting people involved in the news and media production process, based on their community identification needs, and their ability to self-represent, means that it is possible for participants to “learn and adopt a democratic and/or civic attitude,” which in turn is able to strengthen the possible forms of participation that are necessary for a thriving “civic culture” (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 11). In his seminal book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky noted that the power of social organising, without a strong directing force from the centre, is innate within our core means as social beings. According to Shirky, “sociability is one of our core capabilities and it shows up in almost every aspect of our lives as both cause and effect. Society is not just the product of its individual member, it is also the product of its constituent groups’” (Shiky, 2008).

There is much that can be learnt by those supporting and advocating for a renewal of our news systems from other participatory practitioners in other fields, and a dialogue between those advocates would be welcome in defining the social purposes that are in alignment and of which we are agreed.

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