Minimum journalism – Experimental procedures for democratic participation in sound media
This article presents a sociological experiment with public speaking in a controlled studio environment. We tested several procedures designed to make it possible for ordinary Norwegian citizens to discuss and deliberate public issues more freely than is currently possible in public service broadcasting and the commercial sector. Demostation ran two different series of editorial programming where the dynamics of public speaking between the participants was our chief concern. We had groups of people connected through IP-telephony (Skype), and chains of people speaking on the telephone. The conversations were hosted by an editorial member, and a full production team coordinated the effort to get the programme on air. In the course of 2005 Demostation produced nine hours of live public speaking by 89 participants, and the project employed a staff of 11 people. Bertolt Brecht’s idea about making radio into a communication apparatus instead of a distribution apparatus is at the heart of this experiment. But much of broadcast journalism in practice limits the growth and influence of a more dialogic mass communication. Experts, high-profile journalists, politicians and celebrities dominate the airwaves. It is possible to change the balance in favour of ordinary citizens, and this is minimum journalism’s ambition.
Technically, the microphone allows any speaker to be heard. It does not discriminate according to celebrity, credibility or charm. The microphone and its related technologies in a sense equip the audiovisual media with an arena for equal participation by default . But although it is technically possible for anyone to speak on radio, television or Internet sites, it is not journalistically opportune to unleash this energy in full, either in commercial or public service broadcasting.
In the early 21st century we witness a massive replacement of equipment for radio, telephony and computer communication, because of prolonged digitalization and broadband saturation in Western countries. Hundreds and thousands of grass-roots initiatives are learning how to make use of the social and political functions of these media. The playing field for new forms of journalistic and aesthetic expression seems to be wide open; at least for a while. Innovative functionalities and forms of content are offered in the marketplace, visions of social equalization are projected by politicians and techno- optimists. The experiment reported in this article is motivated by the presumption that all kinds of potentially good communication procedures must be tested while the opportunity for radical reform is still here.
The Problem with Maximum Journalism
Traditional or ‘‘maximum’’ journalism is not typically understood as a hindrance to democratic communication. On the contrary, it is construed as a watchdog of government and other powers, as a protector of democratic values in the public, and as narrator of personal and social stories with relevance for citizens (Carpentier, 2005, p. 208). In having such important functions, journalism rises above the communication that ordinary citizens can effect between themselves. Journalists work in a well-defined profession with trade unions and interest organizations, they possess complex expressive skills involving writing, camera work, styles of speaking and moving around, editing, checking sources, complying with ethical guidelines, etc. Hard news is the prime example of a professional journalistic product, and it would be as difficult for laypersons to create as an academic research article.
Indeed, if journalists act properly there is no real need for participation by laypeople since the interrogation of power and a pluralistic expression of the interests of social groups is accomplished anyway. As suggested, the problem with maximum journalism is that even in its most healthy expression it is an expert activity which makes the broadcast programme inaccessible as an arena for ordinary people, or at most they only have a role if they act according to the interests of the editors. There are professional requirements, personal ambitions and market moralities that will keep maximum journalism from ever becoming truly democratic in the participatory meaning of the word. Nico Carpentier (2005) points out that the control over means of producing programme content leads journalists to feel a psychological ownership of the products. This confusion of authorship with personal ownership is detrimental to a conception of ‘‘the public’’ as an arena equally open to all. Attention is a scarce resource, and great wealth accrues to those who manage to dominate it. For eloquent critiques of this inherently undemocratic structure of the mass media, see Dewey (1991 ) and Curran (2002).
There are also eloquent defences of traditional mass communication, of which the defence of broadcasting is the most striking. John Durham Peters claims that dialogue is an overrated form of communication. ‘‘Dialogue is only one communicative script among many. The lament over the end of conversation and the call for refreshed dialogue alike miss the virtues inherent in nonreciprocal forms of action and culture’’ (Durham Peters, 1999, p. 34). However, it is important to be pragmatic about this issue. If you take into account the overwhelming amount of programming that features celebrities, high-profile journalists, experts and politicians, it seems that Durham Peters and those who share his opinion support the stronger party in the equation. Ideally, non-reciprocal forms of communication may be superior to other scripts, but this is certainly not the case in Western capitalist countries in 2007. It seems strange to defend the super-professional communication of modern mass media against dialogues that involve ordinary citizens.
The Demostation experiment is based on the belief that it is possible to develop interfaces and editorial procedures that would systematically counteract the unjust accumulation of attention to professional speakers. Our approach is to leave maximum journalism behind and instead experiment with what we called minimum journalism . The term recognizes that there will always be a need for responsible gate-keeping and editorial preparation of content in a mass medium, but this effort should be directed exclusively at cultivating good forms of public speaking between ordinary citizens.
Our journalistic approach is rooted in the optimistic presumption that technological change in mass media also harbours the potential for editorial change . New media may indeed harbour revolutionary new practices, but we can only know provided the full potential is tested early in their existence. The idea of redirecting the means of mass communication towards a common good is not a new one. In 1932 Bertolt Brecht recommended that radio broadcasting be turned into a participatory voice medium. Demostation is a practical test of the merits of Brecht’s principle; an attempt at applying his sound-oriented theory of communication in a digital medium setting in 2005. Brecht had in mind a more democratic or more equal platform for participation in the public sphere of the future. Its simple structure is formulated to perfection in his article ‘‘The Radio as a Communications Apparatus’’:
Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organise its listeners as suppliers. (Brecht, 2001 , p. 42)
This well-known ‘‘editorial manifesto’’ from 1932 presumes sound communication as part of the technical solution, basically in the form of live speaking and listening through microphones and loudspeakers. Brecht envisions a network of amateurs transmitting from their personal equipment, and speaking on a public frequency with real political impact in society. In Brecht’s manifesto there is much political energy, but it is not explicated very clearly. Indeed, a writer like C. Wright Mills formulated a very Brechtian ideal for the public sphere.
In a public , as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operation. (C. Wright Mills, quoted in Habermas, 1990 , p. 358)
Jürgen Habermas quotes this passage at the end of his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as a definition of public speaking that is valuable for empirical investigations, and it has guided the operationalizations of the Demostation experiment from the beginning. The ideal behaviour of the public sphere has in recent years been much discussed under the label of deliberation. Coleman and Gøtze (2001) write that ‘‘methods of public engagement can be described as deliberative when they encourage citizens to scrutinise, discuss and weigh up competing values and policy options. Such methods encourage preference formation rather than simple preference assertion’’. This conception of public speaking also informs the Demostation experiment.
A Hybrid Communication Apparatus
The Demostation experiment presumes that there is a certain determination at play in the relationship between media technologies and human behaviour. In applying this principle, the technical configuration of Demostation was designed to result in more equal and responsible participation, to the extent that such behavioural issues can be influenced technically.
More precisely, Demostation was an experiment with live conversation on a ‘‘website telephone radio’’. This communication apparatus does not contain any technical novelties, and can be called an ‘‘architectural innovation’’ in that it combines already existing elements in a new way. The combination merits being conceived of as a prototype for public speaking, a departure from traditional uses of the three media in isolation. What is meant by prototype is a full-scale and functional design, including technical, journalistic and participatory features. This hybrid configuration of contact was chosen to exploit what we considered the most democratic features of the three already existing media.
Radio’s Sound Aesthetic
The verbal sound of talk radio is the perceptual focus of Demostation ’s contents, and we therefore refer to them as ‘‘programmes’’ in the traditional sense. The sounds and contents of speech are familiar to all citizens alike, and verbal genres like debates, interviews, formal speeches or talk show conversations are a staple of traditional radio. This ‘‘sound’’ was consciously chosen as the preferred public identity of Demostation instead of, for example, the silent display of text exchanges in chat rooms, net-meetings and other forms of written participation. Broadcasting is ‘‘illiterate’’ says James Carey (1989, p. 9), and this strange compliment suggests how little communicative expertise is required to perform in it. Anyone who can speak the language can be a participant in sound media (and television).
Computers and websites make up an efficient platform for public access to sound content. It does not cost much to launch an audio stream on a website, and this can be considered a democratization of the means of production. We created a simple website with textual information about our programmes, contact information and an audio stream that had to be accessed with software like Microsoft’s Media Player. We believe that it is an important value of traditional radio and television broadcasting that they are live at the point of transmission (Ellis, 2000), since audience members can potentially give immediate feedback and influence the on-air argument during the present discussion. All our programmes were produced live on air, and archived on the website afterwards.
Since 2005, podcasting has emerged as a new means of Internet sound distribution. Through website portals like iTunes all kinds of stored audio programmes can be downloaded and listened to on the iPod and other music players. Unfortunately, podcasting is not practical for public debate since its programmes are always completed before the citizen can hear them. The listener therefore cannot intervene in the arguments of someone in the programme by calling in and joining the discussion. Podcasting puts the listener squarely in the ‘‘audience position’’, unless the editors invite people to present their argument in pre-recorded takes (e.g. through a website), and distribute these takes as a collection with or without editorial commentary.
Telephones and telecom networks connect citizens with each other in a myriad of ways that can easily be exploited on a streaming audio website. By combining the access potential of landline, mobile and IP services one can potentially make contact with all citizens of a country. At least this is true for Western Europe, the United States and other industrialized countries. By relying on these telecom opportunities the station can recruit participants directly through well-established social networks, and this was Demostation ’s greatest asset. Demostation also used the Skype telephony software, which affords conference sessions of up to four people, but was not widespread in the population at the time.
There are great democratic strengths in telephony. Telephony is a highly symmetrical platform for interaction. It is very simple in operation since all you have to do is speak. It allows administration at a distance, as well as intimacy at a distance, and it does so for any and all users. On the telephone platform there are no particular differences in empowerment among the users, as there is between journalists and listeners on the traditional broadcasting platform. The conversations and the times of day that they occur are voluntary for both parties at least as far as the technical interface is concerned. Although social hierarchies are of course also present on the phone, there is little in the phone as a communication platform that forces some people to obey someone else in a particular way. The phone therefore allows independent voices in the broadest sense of the word. (For studies of the mobile phone, see for example Ling, 2004 and Katz and Aakhus, 2002).
To sum up, Demostation was intended to inspire good communication among Norwegian citizens by exploiting three distinctive technological features: radio’s sound aesthetic, which is familiar to everybody after many decades of cultivation; a streaming audio website, that is accessible to all who are online; and telephony to which all Norwegian citizens have easy access and could use to contact the station.
There is very little research-based experimentation with editorial formats in journalism and media studies (but see Coyle, 2000). Most media experiments are conducted by activists, commercial enterprises, amateurs or journalism students, with no particular attempt at systematic testing of hypotheses, or cataloguing the experiences in a publicly available form. Sociological experiments with media behaviour can produce valuable knowledge for public sphere theory and democratic practice, and should be pursued more vigorously in the future.
In an experiment people behave quite differently from ordinary life. Since Demostation was not a professional programme on an established station, the participants were not callers at all, that is, they were not what Karen Ross calls ‘‘self-selected at the point of phoning in’’ (Ross, 2004, p. 788). Our experimental participants were all persuaded to take part as representatives of Demostation , and this makes them special in terms of motivation.
Sara O’Sullivan distinguishes two types of participant behaviour in traditional phone-in programmes; ‘‘the service encounter’’, where the callers want to solve a problem outside the programme by asking questions to experts; and ‘‘the expressive or emotive encounter’’, where the callers want to talk about their personal experiences concerning the topic under discussion, and enjoy revealing their own personality (O’Sullivan, 2005, p. 721). These categories are not really applicable to Demostation ’s preferred behaviour,
since we encouraged politically motivated acts, such as voicing a strong belief or criticizing an adversary to his face.
As suggested, our participants engaged in artificial behaviour . We had to ask people in our surroundings to go along with the presumption of deliberating or discussing for three to four minutes in our forum. Since our volunteers were super-alerted to the purpose of our project, the experiments should not be taken to have revealed media behaviour that exists independently of our station, only behaviour that was specific to the environment of the Demostation ’s journalism and technical set-up. In general methodo- logical terms, this means that ‘‘the experimenter is present on the scene when the data are collected and exercises considerable control over the experimental environment’’ (Bailey, 1987, p. 214). And indeed, students, researchers and participants were all ‘‘experimenters’’ who influenced the further development of the procedures they took part in. The experiment is itself part of the reality it wants to discover more fully.
There are always behavioural factors that are impossible to control, and these are often the most interesting. They can be called independent or uncontrollable variables. In Demostation the independent variables included the participants’ motivation to speak and go along with the game, the content of the evolving dialogue among participants on air, and the more trivial but nonetheless very influential variation in the technologies’ ability to perform faultlessly all through the programme. The two first variables were crucial to our experiment, since they determined the behaviour of our participants and in that way told us something about the procedures we were testing.
In a sociological experiment there are also dependent or controllable variables, the factors that the experiment staff can manipulate at will, and which can therefore be systematically tested. In Demostation these were the technical solutions (radio sound, Internet distribution, telephone contact), the graphics and text on the website, the programme schedule, the public profile, the organization of the staff and other practical matters. The station itself was our foremost research instrument in the sense that we could change the procedures several times during one programme, and take note of the variations in participant behaviour. Systematic logs and archives were kept of all activities, including planning, participant recruitment, programme content, website texts, editorial evaluations, public attention and more.
There were two iterations of the experiment; Demostation 1 in April 2005 and Demostation 2 in September 2005. ‘‘Iteration’’ can be defined as a repetition of a sequence of operations that is meant to yield results successively closer to a desired result, or less instrumentally; as a repetition based on planned changes in the set-up to investigate new variables, or learning to take advantage of discoveries in subsequent experiments, or being able to include interesting developments that may have occurred during the time between iterations. Demostation 1 and Demostation 2 had systematic differences, as the descriptions below will attest to. Results of the Demostation experiment are also presented in Skogseth (2006).
Some sociologists would claim that this project was an example of action research, which is typically conceived of as an intervention aiming to improve the behaviour and experience of a given social group. This can be making a business staff more efficient by making them enjoy work more (Gustavsen, 2001), or teaching discriminated immigrants how to cope better with their situation (Fals Borda, 2001). However, Demostation was not aiming to change the lives of any particular social group, we only aimed to carry out a standard sociological experiment, involving participants for the duration of the experi- ment, and shutting the whole production down permanently afterwards. Experimental knowledge about new forms of public speaking must increase a good deal before researchers start promoting specific configurations of contact through interventionist strategies.
Editorial Context: Talk Radio in London, 2004
To create an editorial context for the Demostation experiment it will be illuminating to look at the current situation regarding programmes that know ‘‘how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear’’ (Brecht, 2001 ). Clearly, the ambition to create public deliberation on radio and television is not new, and strategies for achieving it have existed for decades. Phone-in programmes on radio are the most obvious example of traditional participatory programming, albeit quasi-democratic and sometimes caricatured. The genre flourishes in countries like Britain, Ireland and the United States.
In contrast to ‘‘maximum journalism’’, phone-in programmes like that of BBC London that will be presented here give laypersons a striking measure of complicity in the production, although their journalism relies on traditional features like celebrity-style hosting and much longer speaking time for hosts than for participants. Current phone-in programmes do not practise minimum journalism in a radical sense, but they come closer than most other radio (and television) formats.
The BBC London talk show with John Gourdes was aired on weekday mornings from 9.00 to 11.00 for several years. It was a topical programme with two or three simultaneous discussions running through each show. It had a special feature once a month with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. He joined the programme for one hour, and the programme was then structured so that one particular type of interest could come on air, namely responses to the politics of the Mayor of London.
Before going into the qualitative character of the conversations, it should be noted that the quantitative facilitation of participation in this show was impressive. In one hour BBC London put 11 people on air (Figure 1). It seems that the recruitment of participants was not a problem because the show is well-known and popular, so that far more people called the show than could possibly get on air during the one-hour programme.
For an hour the programme was an arena for discussion with, and critique of, the local government. The programme on Thursday 24 June 2004 took place just as London Underground workers threatened to go on strike, and the Mayor took a clear stand against them. Most calls from listeners concerned their frustrations with transportation issues. Listening to the programme there is no doubt that callers were able to perform well. All of them spoke rather effortlessly, and some made really striking arguments. For example, a male caller claimed that the London Transport Authority was charging premium rates for phone calls inquiring about their services, which he found preposterous. During the programme this was confirmed and the Mayor’s office promised to reduce the phone charges for this service. Demands for more decisive action by the local police were made on the basis of first-hand experience of pick-pocketing and street violence.
Despite the fact that these verbal exchanges were inquisitive and emotionally charged, it appears that the BBC editors controlled too many of the programme variables, and forced the participants to act within certain procedural restrictions that did not foster real deliberation. There was little or no allowance for reciprocal communication between the callers themselves. The format only allowed for a series of individuals appearing alone, in contrast to a group session or a chain of interconnected persons speaking together in various ways. Even though there were substantial discussions between the host, Mayor Livingstone and individual participants, there was no direct contact between a participant and other layperson participants.
Furthermore, it was the host who moderated the Q and A, and he dominated everybody including the Mayor. The host intervened at every sign of deviance from the preordained role play. In this sense the editorial profile was typically ‘‘authoritative’’. The callers were put in the very narrow subject position of posing a question or a complaint; and were given little leeway to discuss freely. This implies that the callers are limited to only displaying their individual preferences to the public, instead of being part of a discussion that could potentially transform their original preferences (see Elster, 1998, p. 1). This editorial mechanism is detrimental to deliberative speaking, and could be interpreted as part of an ideological tendency that Will Kymlicka calls ‘‘liberal atomism’’ (2002, p. 296), and Stephen Coleman calls the problem of ‘‘the lonely citizen’’ (Coleman,
Due to this formal procedure the BBC London programme seems quite authoritative (if not authoritarian) in its public address. And despite its sincere attempt at public participation it remains true to the power structure of traditional maximum journalism. In the end, what this means is that the programme is made for the benefit of the listeners, and not for the benefit of the participants in the on-air discussion.
Demostation 1: Groups of People in Skype Sessions
Demostation 1 was introduced to our experimental participants as a topical talk station that would invite discussion of more or less arbitrary issues in private and public life, presuming that the opinions of all speakers were equally important. Its expressed purpose was to test out ways of allowing groups of people to discuss the topic for a rather long time. We wanted to counter the serial formats that BBC London and other stations promote, where individuals appear in splendid isolation from each other. Indeed, the programmes were made for the benefit of the participants, and not for making an impression on absent listeners. For this reason, and also because we feared serious technical difficulties in executing the programmes, Demostation 1 completely avoided public attention. There were actually only 10 – 15 listeners to our programmes.
In Demostation 1 all programmes were composed of dialogues between three and five persons along with two hosts, and this format we termed sessions . Sessions could only be made in the Skype software because the mixing board had too few phone extensions to allow for so many speakers. The hosts and participants conversed for around 20 minutes in a session where all participants had the same opportunity to speak up. Several programmes had more than one session, so that up to 10 persons took part.
As Figure 2 displays, everybody was on air for a much longer time than they spent talking, and in some sessions the participants had around 30 minutes to spread out their approximately four minutes of speaking time.
The editorial staff was concerned with time-keeping. In the programme ‘‘Freedom of Speech’’ (6 April 2005), we used the sound of a ticking clock to notify people when their time was up. It turned out that it was not practicable to be so strict, because the measuring of speaking times created very difficult procedures for the editorial staff, and the participants also became nervous and confused by it. We did not repeat this explicit time-keeping, although the premise of equal time for all was pursued in less direct ways in all Demostation programmes.
Statistics of time-allotments in Demostation 1 show the systematic allowance of rather long speaking periods for participants. In spite of our precluding efforts the hosts had to speak a lot, for example when introducing new speakers and asking questions. Therefore 20 per cent of programme duration is deducted before calculating the average on-air time for the experimental participants (Table 1).
We learnt that an average speaking time of four minutes was suitable in the sense that the pace of speaking turns slowed down dramatically compared for example to the BBC London programme, and created a rich social resonance between the participants. The relaxed styles of face-to-face conversation in everyday life were more or less unintentionally taken up, without losing the focus on a topic relevant to the larger public arena.
What about the communicative behaviour in these programmes? Two distinctly different sets of rules were adopted. In the first format, topically restricted debate , participants were obligated to adhere rather strictly to the predetermined topic of the programme, and had to defend a position which was often the reason they were invited to the programme in the first place. Everybody was entitled to a main statement, one or more comments, and a closing argument. This format was used for discussing ‘‘Freedom of Speech’’, ‘‘Democratic Radio on the Internet – is it possible?’’ and ‘‘Media Research and Societal Change’’, and was clearly the most deliberative format. It soon became clear that this format was easier to relate to for those of our experimental participants who worked in academia, politics or journalism, while students, arbitrary family members and other people who did not have a clear position on a topic, and were not used to controversial debate, felt uncomfortable in this format.
The second format, which we called everyday open conversation , was created after noticing the relaxation that four-minute speaking periods inspired. Its purpose was simply to emulate everyday conversations on air, and test the extent to which participants were actually able to relax while still talking about substantial issues. The format was used for discussing ‘‘Men and Women’’, ‘‘Student Culture’’, ‘‘Studies Abroad’’ and ‘‘Music’’. We learnt that groups of students quickly started talking to each other in ways that were very relaxed, resembling private phone calls more than public speaking. Although several of the participants were friends from before, we believe that the four-person group sessions were instrumental in facilitating such seemingly natural conversation. This is a valuable discovery that should be explored further.
TABLE 1 – Programme statistics for Demostation 1
[table id=1 /]
*Twenty per cent of the programme duration was deducted before calculating the average on-air time.
In Demostation 1 the recruitment of participants was made very difficult by the fact that everybody needed Skype, and this technology is not widespread in the Norwegian public. The research staff had to equip most of the participants physically. In practice, all participants were recruited among friends, family and colleagues of the editorial staff. There was little focus on representation in the socio-demographic sense, except that we secured gender balance.
Demostation 2: Chains of People on the Telephone
Demostation 2 sought public attention in a much more active way than the previous experiment. The programmes were aired during the general election in September 2005, with a broad range of politicians, activists and non-committed citizens involved, and we therefore wanted to rehearse the procedures with maximum sense of editorial responsibility. An editor-in-chief was appointed to make sure that the verbal exchanges in the programmes were reasonably civil and had a minimum of political balance.
While Demostation 1 had two different formats, topically restricted debate and everyday open conversation, Demostation 2 had no such restrictions on speech style. In Demostation 2 all programmes were composed of dialogues between two persons along with two hosts, in a format we called the chain . Demostation 2 was entirely based on traditional telephony instead of the rather technologically demanding Skype software. Since the chains were arranged through the telephone network, Demostation 2 had a much greater potential for recruiting participants outside the editorial staff’s immediate social surroundings. As already argued, Skype is still mainly used by early adopters of new technologies, and there would be no way of having representative participation of citizens with this approach. Furthermore, the chain format can be put on air by stations that use a standard mixing board with two phone lines, and this means that the chain format is more likely to be rehearsed in the larger public sphere by existing radio stations.
As Figure 3 illustrates, the chain functioned in the following way: At the beginning of the programme the first participant was invited to present his/her opinion on the selected topic. After a short while the second participant would come on air and present his/her opinion, and the two would discuss for some minutes. The first participant would then be offered a closing argument, and be taken off air. The third participant would come on air to present his opinions and discuss with the second participant. This procedure would go on for one hour, typically accommodating 10 – 12 participants (Table 2). Consequently, every participant spoke with two other participants, except for the first and last. All participants who listened to the programme before their turn would be well informed about the discussion so far.
Several of the experimental participants expressed positive amazement at the leeway given by the hosts. In the programme ‘‘Empty Promises?’’ (13 September 2005), a female politician from the Progress Party discussed with another woman for almost eight minutes. In the end she was perturbed by the fact that nobody intervened, and ended her line of argument voluntarily. In the programme ‘‘Where You Live’’ (8 September 2005) another female politician deviated from the party book by agreeing to a critical remark against her party, stating that in this particular public context she could just as well be honest. Admittedly, there may have been too much leeway in the programme procedures.
In the same programme a representative of a worker’s union read a written statement aloud, clearly taking the opportunity to present an official statement and not really getting into a discussion at all. The relaxed mood may also be attributed to the experimental nature of the conversations. In an interview study made some weeks after the event, one of the female participants said: ‘‘I wasn’t as nervous as I would have been if I was to be on the air in a nationwide channel, that’s for sure. Knowing that there are few listeners makes it much more relaxing, and therefore the whole conversational structure was rather nice, seeing as there weren’t that many people holding you accountable’’ (interview 10 October 2005).
The verbal leeway that our procedures gave, and the low level of expectations that our lack of a real audience created, were conducive to self-confident and assertive behaviour among our participants. It was striking how comfortably our ordinary citizens could promote political ideals (like subsidized transport in peripheral towns and villages, or increased maternity and paternity leave). It seemed that it was easy to become enthusiastic about ideal states, and speak about them with confidence and conviction, no matter whether this confidence was well-considered or naive, sincere or over-dramatized.
TABLE 2 – Programme statistics for Demostation 2
[table id=2 /]
*Twenty per cent of the programme duration was deducted before calculating the average on-air time.
In the programme ‘‘The Sofa Voter’’ (9 September 2005), a young student spoke enthusiastically in favour of the political principle of ‘‘mandatory voting’’. He seemed to believe very strongly in the need to require responsible behaviour from citizens.
Host: And we now have Sturla Hansen with us, right?
Sturla: Yes, that’s right.
Host: Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Sturla: Yes, I’m 26 years old, a journalism student at Volda University College, and I come from Oslo. Is that enough?
Host: Yes, that’s fine. Do you think it is important to vote?
Sturla: Yes, of course I do! I actually think there should be mandatory voting.
Host: Why is that?
Sturla: Well, yes, in municipal elections the voter turnout has been around 60 per cent, and although I don’t remember what it has been in general elections it’s probably a little higher, but in any case it is too little. And I think that the burden of voting is so small that one could expect all citizens to do it.
Sturla: And besides, if I can add one more thing, it turns out that the poor people, if we can call them that, vote less often than those who are highly educated in their electoral strategy. And this can in the final analysis lead to political parties calculating on this. If there was a 100 per cent voter turn-out you could not calculate on the uneven number of votes from various groups in society, if you get my point.
Host: You can discuss this more later. We just want to include Daniel Dragset in the debate first.
Host: Are you here Daniel? Daniel: Yes, I am.
Host: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Daniel: I’m 20 years old, a student of journalism, first year in Volda, and I come from
Aalesund. I am also a member of the Young Conservatives.
Host: Sturla has just said that voting should be mandatory. What do you say about that? Daniel: Yes, it’s an interesting proposal. In Australia they actually have mandatory voting, and you get a ticket if you don’t vote, I think it’s 10 dollars. So that’s interesting. But we actually have quite a good voter turnout if we compare with other countries. We had 75.5 per cent at the 2001 election, and that’s far better than the USA, for example, and also many other Western European countries.
Host: Did you hear what Daniel said now, Sturla?
Sturla: Yes. But I think the eternal comparison with other countries is wrong. Shouldn’t we strive to be as good as possible? Seventy-five per cent is too little in any case! And in municipal elections it has been 60 per cent, and not even the Young Conservatives can be pleased about that.
Daniel: I agree completely that the voter turn-out is too low, especially among young people.
This dialogue and its impact on participants display how an initiative from a participant could become a recurring theme in the programme. According to Jon Elster, the crucial requirement for deliberation to take place is that there is a transformation of preferences among the participants in the exchange (Elster, 1998).
The student’s recommendation of mandatory voting was discussed by several speakers who appeared later in the programme, and they mainly supported the idea and admitted that they had not thought about it before. The hosts also challenged participants to respond to this proposition, and the editor of Demostation ended up writing an editorial on the website championing mandatory voting. Before the programme started there were no plans to give this argument any prominence, so this is an example of how the agenda of minimum journalism can be participant- driven .
Demostation 2 had a much greater focus on the challenges of recruiting participants in a representative manner than Demostation 1 had. There was careful preparation by an editorial secretary in making each programme representative of gender, age, class, occupation, area of residence and political affiliation The programme participants were thus recruited to represent a broad cross-section of Norwegian society (see Skogseth, 2006 for a detailed account of the recruitment strategy of Demostation 2). Participants were recruited during the last few days before the programme. To secure an even flow in the conversation they were all contacted 15 minutes before the programme began to check that they were actually available. The moderator reminded them of the topic, the chain procedure, and the fact that they would have approximately four minutes on air. The hosts prepared a series of questions and comments to move the conversation on when needed, and more importantly; they noted some facts about the participants’ personal backgrounds in order to be able to relate to them in a credible way. To the extent that the deliberations were well-formulated and thought-provoking, cannot least be credited to the substantial preparatory work by the staff. This is a core aspect of minimum journalism.
Procedures for Minimum Journalism
Reasonable public participation by ordinary citizens relies on editorial principles that aim to reduce the influence of hosts, celebrities and experts. As suggested above, current interactive programming is not helpful to the pursuit of increased and more responsible participation because participants tend to become a means of creating entertaining shows with high ratings. There are four procedures for minimum journalism that should be cultivated more systematically in the future.
Produce All Programmes Live on Air
There should be no preparation of edited journalistic material like reportage, interviews, monologues, etc. Live productions can easily accommodate a communication setting that everybody is familiar with, namely the direct give and take of verbal behaviour. Everybody is on the same footing, and what matters is to say the right words at the right time. The less edited and post-produced the presentation is, the less the expertise of media professionals has intervened in the mediation process. Live programmes thus afford a more egalitarian technique for public speaking than recorded programmes, and furthermore, this is a simple and inexpensive means of creating media content.
Acknowledge the Tensions and Energies of Ordinary Talk
The Demostation experiment further confirmed that there is great dialogic potential in live speech, and suggests that layperson discussion has qualities of sincerity and authenticity that are often lacking in professional journalistic talk. Everyday speech is the main arena for personal opinion and conflict, arguments and counter arguments. Humans have a tactical understanding of our strengths and weaknesses in a given situation, and we are able to work our way around obstacles and act on opportunities. People are also good at interpreting others’ expressions and intentions. You can somehow feel whether the person you are talking to is really participating or not; whether she is indignant or enthusiastic, or how long she is willing to go in promoting a viewpoint or an idea. This is a style of speaking that can clearly be cultivated more consciously in the public sphere.
But there is a deep-seated problem about believing in sincere behaviour in the mass media. People are free to engage in role play. They may enact the role of the zealous reformer, the cynical businessman or the careless student. They may know very well that they are presenting themselves in this stereotypical manner. Much sociologically inspired media research has a well-considered scepticism towards claims of authenticity or sincerity in maximum journalism, see for example, Scannell (1996) and Johansen (1999). It is argued that verbal and visual performances are so heavily influenced by the self-interested role plays of those participating, and the genre requirements of contemporary broadcasting, that truly sincere or authentic behaviour is impossible. This criticism can also be levelled at the performances in Demostation . For example, a radio journalist took part in the programme ‘‘Democratic Radio on the Internet – is it possible?’’ (15 April 2005) in Demostation 1, and he tried to ‘‘win’’ the debate by speaking very loudly, and not respecting the interventions of the hosts and the other participants.
Make the Hosts Inconspicuous
Their work consists of moderating the conversations according to the procedures of a given approach (series, group, chain). The hosts do indeed put restrictions on the behaviour of participants, but they are obliged to let some restrictions apply equally to everyone. Insulting or defamatory statements must be advised against, and sanctioned by the hosts when they occur. Since everybody is entitled to speak for approximately the same time, this must accordingly be cued by the staff. In performing these chores the hosts resemble switchboard operators more than traditional hosts. The journalism students who worked as hosts in Demostation were frustrated by their very limited freedom of expression.
Although the hosts were certainly not ego-tripping on air, they had a more crucial role for the on-air conversations than we had intended for them. We learnt that there was a real need for the hosts to steer conversations back to the chosen topic. It turned out to be important to adhere to a restricted topic because participants had accepted an advance invitation to take part, and had prepared accordingly. Also, the participants were unfamiliar with speaking in public, and it was often necessary for the hosts to ‘‘help’’ them. This may be taken as proof of maximum journalism’s inevitable superiority, and may undermine the entire point of the Demostation exercise in the mind of the reader. But it is important not to confuse personal presence with procedures for steering the conversa- tion, and it was the latter that was desired by the participants. The procedures are embedded temporarily in this particular host, tomorrow another host may be enforcing them, and another participant may be complying with them. In this sense the hosts are indeed inconspicuous.
Recruit Participants Actively
Minimum journalism cannot function without a large number of volunteer participants. And in order to make the programmes politically relevant some version of socio-demographic representation should be considered. People may be recruited by direct contact from the production staff, or be self-recruited through the website, but in both cases there is a lot of preparatory work needed to secure a good selection of speakers. One programme could be based on a woman-only discussion that was representative of the women of Norway and consequently exclude the male perspective; or a discussion among immigrants where their particular socio-demographic distribution would restrict the recruitment process.
The Demostation experiment, for practical reasons, took place in a very small public arena. It was not produced for sufficient time to build an audience that would in its turn spawn a large number of callers. The programmes were often marred by technical errors and noise that broke up conversations and made it difficult to engage fully in the dialogues, especially during the Skype sessions in Demostation 1. These weaknesses are the consequence of this being a low-cost research project, and could most likely be avoided in a more complex and well-funded version.
In summary, Demostation demonstrates that digital media’s potential for equal and responsible participation is not exploited in full, and this is a valuable insight in its own right. There are in fact several configurations of contact between people that would increase their political impact, but which are never exploited in large public arenas.
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