“Mass audiences” and citizen journalism

“Sri Lankan participatory media projects do not yet have mass audiences.”

Burning Bridges makes this statement in a recent post on participatory media’s impact on abductions in Sri Lanka.

I wonder though, should they?

Does it require a “mass audience” to make an impact? I think the answer to this depends on place, context, issue, content quality and other factors but I think that in some (or many?) cases of user generated content / participatory media / citizen journalism the fact is that it has an impact more than what one would associate with mere audience numbers. In other words, perhaps who is aware of CJ / reads it / bases their decisions on it is oftentimes more important than how many have access to and consume CJ?

As an aside, articles on Groundviews are republished regularly on the Daily Mirror, leading to one aspiration of mine to facilitate the creation of and publish citizen journalism of a standard comparable to and even on occasion exceeding mainstream English print media being fulfilled to a degree two years since I introduced the concept to Sri Lanka. Also noteworthy is the fact that blog posts / blogosphere content are increasingly featured in Sri Lanka traditional / mainstream media, oftentimes without prior permission of the original content producer.

But Groundviews is perhaps the wrong example. Many other blogs I read on Sri Lanka aren’t republished in a newspaper to reach hundreds of thousands, but I would argue that many of them have a loyal readership, that this readership often clicks through to links that the post refers to and that is from a large age and location demographic. As Burning Bridges goes on to note in this regard,

They do, however, have the attention of the policy world, and of elites in and diaspora from Sri Lanka. Increasingly, they have strategies to get their work into mass media outlets, whether as columns in newspapers, or as reports about their work. Cumulatively, they have managed to both raise the profile of the issue of abductions, and to help direct resources and energy into better research and monitoring. It remains a question as to whether they’ve managed to affect the political landscape.

That I manage to regularly frustrate, inter alia, the Government’s Peace Secretariat as evinced by their assertion earlier this year that I “provide solace and relief to terrorists” is a good thing keeping in mind the nature of the Rajapakse regime, which is largely and viciously intolerant of competing narratives on war, peace, human rights and governance in Sri Lanka.

CJ also has a long tail. Articles I’ve published two years ago are still being read and have, over the months, accumulated hundreds of thousands of page-views cumulatively. When speaking about affecting the political landscape, it’s important to think of what that actually means.

For me, affecting the political landscape is not necessarily change in our lifetimes. Sometimes, it may well be. But a violent ethno-political conflict that pre-dated by birth may well continue after my death (given the oftentimes truncated life-spans of those who articulate peace through peaceful means in Sri Lanka) with the point that someone needs to bear witness to the country’s social, political, economic cultural and religious timbre, amongst others. A living history as it were, from a defined perspective, that in relation to others can present richer, more multi-faceted versions of history than that which would otherwise be possible.

This is why I am interested in participatory media. I would be elated to realise political change on account of the content featured on say Groundviews, but I would not be dissapointed if this does not happen any time soon. The content on the site and the larger content on the SL blogosphere, including all of that which I don’t agree with, are deeply valuable in a country precisely for the reason that they offer a greater spectrum of opinion than what I find in traditional media today – which is silent by fear or coercion.

This is a larger debate on course, but I wanted to place the thoughts that occurred to me when reading Burning Bridge’s post:

  • That as we move forward and media evolves / fragments, “mass audiences” may well be impossible
  • The assumption that “mass audiences” influence political thinking to any degree
  • The architectonics of partisan politics in Sri Lanka and how it has, in my mind, never been the case that the “mass audience” has determined our political future but the vision (good or bad) or a few political leaders
  • That political change is measured in a timeline shorter than that which gave rise to violent conflict
  • The lack of recognition of participatory media as witness(es) to events, issues and processes than traditional media cannot or will not cover
  • That the State and the resources is has at its command is and for the foreseeable future will be stronger, more pervasive and dare I say, more convincing than most participatory media to most people who don’t have access to alternatives viewpoints through web media
  • That the larger international human rights groups and NGOs rarely look at participatory media produced in the country and seek to strengthen these voices instead of their own
  • That a “mass audience” without media literacy skills and fed on propaganda can be influenced by alternative media / CJ which they would invariably see as marginal and parochial
  • That there is a desire for all participatory media to peg success with appealing to a “mass audience”, which ignores the many ways in which CJ helps strengthen conflict transformation
  • That many still judge the effectiveness, reach and sustainability of CJ by the same yardsticks used to judge traditional media, without realising that new measures need to be created to more fully capture the dynamism and texture of CJ production, dissemination and consumption

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