A bow to citizens’ journalism
By Unto Hämäläinen
Since 1927 Time magazine has chosen a person of the year. The choice is for the person who has had the most influence on news in the year, both in good things and bad. Usually the choice falls on statesmen, great benefactors, shapers of public opinion, and inventors who have made great discoveries.
During the year that just ended, Time broke from its previous line of approach, and chose a large group of people as persons of the year - all users of the Internet. The reason given for the choice was that the number of Internet users surged explosively during 2006 on pages where anyone could write their own text or publish pictures.
Time mentions blogs, the video service YouTube, as well as MySpace.
As Time sees it, Internet users are causing an upheaval in the information society. The choice is quite a concession from an old and respected magazine. It is a veritable bow toward citizens’ journalism in the direction of new dissemination of information.
Forrester Research has recently published its own report on European Internet users. The report estimates that in seven large European Union countries there would be more than four million blogs. The estimate for the whole world is more than 60 million.
Finland was not included in the study, but Finnish Internet users are enthusiastic about the new style. The Internet is more than a mere source of information for its users: it is also used as a news medium in its own right.
Blogs - public diaries - are cheap and easy information channels for ordinary citizens.
I began to follow the blog world in the autumn of 2005, when I launched my own, in which I assessed the Presidential election campaign nearly every day from late September to early February. There was also a discussion board on the blog, on which 3,900 opinions appeared.
I closed the blog after the elections, and did not follow the blog world for several months after that. Now I have plans to open a new blog for the upcoming Parliamentary election. For that reason I re-read my presidential election blog and began to follow various articles and message boards on other blogs.
I was surprised, and even a bit alarmed.
My first observation was that there has been a massive increase in blogs in the past few months. There were many new blogs in the Internet publications of the old media, and separate ones have also appeared in cyberspace. There is no limit to what can be found there.
As the supply increases, competition for readers is becoming more intense. At the same time, the temptation to use extraordinary means of competition grows.
There is an uninhibited search for publicity for blogs on popular discussion boards, including the pages of the Helsingin Sanomat online version. Advertising goes approximately like this: someone writes a no-holds barred opinion on the message board, including a link to the person’s own blog.
The Council for Mass Media in Finland (JSN), which monitors the activities of the press, the radio, and television, looks like an ancient relic in questions of freedom of expression, if its decisions are seen against the backdrop of the debate that occurs on the Internet, and with the "information" published there.
JSN receives complaints on possible mistakes that have been made in traditional media. The Council investigates all complaints carefully, hears the views of the sides to the dispute, and gives a ruling in favour of either the medium in question or the person who filed the complaint. If the Council finds against the news medium, the medium at fault is required to publish the Council’s ruling.
The Council makes very few decisions that go against the media side - only about ten a year.
If the mistakes and defamation that appear on the Internet resulted in complaints to the Council for Mass Media on the same principles as the press is under, the Council would have to deal with complaints on a full-time basis, and to find for the plaintiff in many cases.
For some reason, people do not seek to defend their honour. It is possible to publish almost anything in the Internet, and the targets of defamation and lies do not say even a word.
I will not give any examples, because I do not want to spread false information - and end up going before the Council for Mass Media in Finland.
Blogs and message boards have become a grey area of disseminating information. Many take advantage of this loophole, spreading lies either for lack of better knowledge, or deliberately, or because they live in a reality of their own making.
I do not wish to label the new media and those who make it. The misusers are a small group.
The largest proportion of the texts in blogs are useful and fun to read - commendable citizens' journalism.
The Internet has mainly improved the spread of information. It has broadened the field of traditional information dissemination, and opened possibilities for new producers of content. Expression is freer now than it was ten years ago, when the Internet was just starting out.
A positive example of people’s journalism is the global reference work Wikipedia. It is a combination of the new and old journalism. It is produced as a joint effort, but it strives to respect the virtues of traditional journalism.
The English language Wikipedia began in January 2001, and in six years it has spread out to be a global encyclopaedia.
The Finnish-language Wikipedia came on line in August 2002. It has developed well, and it already has 92,000 entries.
Hundreds of people work for free, gathering information, writing articles, and taking part in revising it on the pages of the reference work.
I got to know ten of the writers when I interviewed them for Kuukausiliite, the monthly supplement of Helsingin Sanomat. They were knowledgeable, ambitious, meticulous, and enthusiastic about the project. I was left to wonder if they would be willing to continue their unpaid work once the initial excitement wears off. Hopefully they will, and hopefully new writers can be found.
If it were in my power to narrow down the choice made by Time, I would have given the prize to the people who produce Wikipedia.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 2.1.2007
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat