How Journalists Should Approach Audience Engagement

Jun 302015

As journalism becomes much more linked with the online activities of audiences, several tools are enabling users to send information in real time to newsrooms through web platforms or chat services.

In Latin America, several projects have used technology as an ally to receive information from citizens (see El Faro's citizen inbox on extortion stories from El Salvador), to encourage citizen input on elections (see TVN’s Yo Informo project in Panama) and to share content from citizen reporters using WhatsApp (see Globo’s Extra).

Alongside the potential for increased interaction, there are possible risks and complexities, especially when addressing the security and privacy of user information. Here are five key questions to ask when addressing citizen engagement tech projects.

1. Who will read and address people's inputs?

Receiving user input can involve operational and branding challenges. As user input increases so does the need to read, assess and reply to the sources. User engagement projects should have dedicated teams that can be responsive to input and enable channeling high-value stories and information within the newsroom. Also, everyday contact with users should follow protocols that encourage user loyalty and further interactions.

2. Should people's inputs be public or private?

Even if Internet users should be responsible for what they publish online, whenever there is a request for information from users, they become new sources and as such, they should be under adequate protection. If citizen input touches on sensitive issues, adequate technologies and processes should be put in place so that input can be private or even anonymous. For instance, sensitive information can be shared using secure services. Also, many citizen reporting tools receive private reports that are publicly published only when approved.

3. Who owns the information that is shared, stored and published?

Users can become confused about intellectual property rights when content is shared so widely. Information flow is vast, multisource and remixable, and it is not always clear when a person or company has the right to republish or remix content. No matter if the project runs closed or open approaches on intellectual property, the most important thing is that users can clearly know what kind of ownership and attribution their input has once it reaches the news organization. Agreed terms of service should be understandable and simple in order to strengthen the user's trust.

4. How safe is the information that is managed and stored?

All citizen engagement tools manage and store information. Once the user has submitted information, the secrecy and integrity of it becomes the responsibility of the tool's manager. Depending on the degree of privacy and sensitivity of the data managed and stored, different security protocols should be set in place so that hackers and malicious software aren't able to access or disrupt the data. When dealing with very sensitive information, encryption should be considered as a default throughout the information pipeline and data sources should be made anonymous.

5. Who has control over the technology?

In technology there's always a tough decision to make when choosing to either build in-house technology or use available solutions and services. When assessing technologies and services, it is recommended to assess if the technical team (either internal or external) is fully capable of managing data, performance, security and privacy. The fact that a technology solution is fully usable is only a part of an organization’s responsibility to its users. Whoever is responsible for managing the tool should deliver on the standards agreed to by the end user on data privacy, digital security, intellectual property and ownership of gathered information.

Juan Manuel Casanueva is an ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow working to improve collaboration between technologists, journalists and civil society organizations in Latin America.

This post is also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via International Monetary Fund.