Expert Commentary

Innovation in hybrid spaces: 2011 U.N. Climate Summit and the expanding journalism landscape

2013 study in Journalism on the converging practices of journalistic and advocacy organizations, as seen through the case of climate change-related coverage.

As the digital age empowers more individuals and NGO groups to produce their own “media,” traditional journalism is struggling to adapt to its reduced role in the new information ecosystem and to the new norms that are challenging the limits and ideals of traditional “objectivity.”

Media scholars have begun documenting such shifts and theorizing about their meaning. A 2012 paper published in Information, Communication & Society notes that the new logic of open participation, fostered by digital media, has created a key point of tension for contemporary journalists. A 2013 paper in Journalism Studies titled “Who’s Reporting the Protests?” finds that the practices of citizen reporter-activists and BBC journalists increasingly “converged” during the 2009 Iranian uprising and the 2011 Arab Spring. Likewise, another 2013 study, “Twitter as Reporting Tool for Breaking News,” published in Digital Journalism, notes that some social media reporting on the London riots in 2011 featured more personal voice and opinion from mainstream outlets, suggesting an emerging “hybrid norm.” In any case, while most legacy news organizations would fiercely defend their role as being distinct from that of issue advocates, increasingly consumers of digital media may not always make such sharp distinctions.

A 2013 study published in Journalism, “Innovation in Hybrid Spaces: 2011 U.N. Climate Summit and the Expanding Journalism Landscape,” looks at how different organizations, both NGOs and news outlets, contributed to the information environment around the United Nations climate change conference in Durban, South Africa. The study, from the University of Denver, analyzes the interplay between legacy media organizations, namely the New York Times and USA Today, and climate change-focused advocacy organizations such as, OneClimate and Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA), an umbrella organization for some 300 non-profits. The researcher conducted interviews with participants from the news and advocacy organizations and also performed a content analysis of the media produced around the Durban summit.

The study’s findings include:

  • During the course of the summit, the lines between objective journalism on the one hand and advocacy on the other broke down in practice. Because journalists could not produce nearly the sheer volume of media – videos, pictures, blog posts, tweets, etc. – that the NGOs could, traditional media had to draw on NGO materials and even point to their publication and creation as significant news events in their own right. By the same token, NGOs sometimes operated as news organizations, soliciting comment from news makers and turning themselves into platforms for public participation and discussion.
  •  “Unlike USA Today and the New York Times, NGO coverage was exhaustive and included the actions and comments of high-profile international and national officials, scientists, civil society, and locally focused grassroots groups. In fact the news flows from activist and social media outlets were so much more robust and dynamic than legacy journalism coverage that even the New York Times referred its readers to Twitter for ‘the best way to track the finale and afterthoughts.’”
  • NGOs became hybrid advocacy-journalism organizations, sometimes pushing their specific agenda but often playing the “watchdog” role of the traditional press: “When [members] organize, mobilize, and then report on a protest, for example, they are essen­tially reproducing their own specific stance on an issue. But when OneClimate inter­views officials and delegates using questions from the public, or when GCCA enlists youth delegates to report on their country negotiator, these organizations are opening up the discourse, going beyond their own specific climate agenda or the agenda of climate justice movement leaders.”
  • The coverage reflected in the mainstream news organizations struggled to balance both “objective” norms and “watchdog” norms. Some stories quoted U.S. officials and put together a “straight” story on the powerful/elite actors at the summit. But much of the news coverage was also couched as editorials, news analysis, blog posts or interpretive tweets. This “suggests that notions of objectivity may be evolving … That is, when journalists objectively interpret the Durban Summit, they are critical of it and find value in the positions taken by protestors and activists and are better equipped to do their work as watchdogs.”

The study concludes that “legacy journalism and activist media no longer necessarily have opposing notions of public good.”

Keywords: global warming, greenhouse gases

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