A sick Nigerian child no longer risks being deported. Encyclopedia Britannia has been forced to admit to an error in its Irish entry. The Government is seriously considering a vote on legislation to ban head shops, shops which sell legal highs. All thanks to callers to Liveline.
Liveline, the lunchtime radio call-in show hosted by Joe Duffy, is now becoming the place where stories are broken. Whether you consider it a whinge-fest or a barometer of the country’s mood, there’s no denying that it’s a powerful platform for the public. It’s indicative of a trend that’s crept into all aspects of the media, where the public play as much of a part in driving the news agenda as the journalists themselves.
There has been a lot of talk about citizen journalism; public accounts of major events on the web. Magazines also often feature true-life stories from their readers. But ti’s on radio that this trend is most apparent. Huge chunks of talk radio shows are now devoted to readers’ texts, from the Fixit Friday remedy slot on the Ray D’Arcy show to the humorous musings of Pope Marmalade the Third on Newstalk’s Moncrieff show. Even Morning Ireland, that bastion of impartiality, is encouraging people to contribute to their website.
This has led to a democratisation of the media. People have a chance to address issues that are of most concern to them. Often, they have perspectives that the media would otherwise not be aware of. For example, nobody would have known about the Third-World conditions that cystic fibrosis patients are forced to endure were it not for the eloquent polemics from Orla Tinsley, who has first-hand experience of the effects of these condition.
Media organisations no longer have the same level of budget to invest in front-line journalism, so stories from the public are now used to close the gap. On the flipside, this means that these organisations now have a scapegoat for not investing proper money in true investigative journalism. Reliance on the public for stories also removes the veil of impartiality and allows mass hysteria to build up, without the counterweight of expert opinion to bring balance. For example, the newspapers are filled with first person accounts of crimes. While the crime rate is definitely on the rise, statistics consistently show that the Irish crime rate is lower than that of our British and European neighbours. But because of these hysterical public accounts, people think it is higher than it actually is.
The public role in the media is now permanent. To make the most of it, an integrated approach is required, a mix of public and expert opinion. A typical example is in health articles, where the expertise of doctors is interspersed with a first-hand account from a person affected by an illness or condition. Public involvement gives life to tired stories, but the overarching views of experts deepens our understanding of an issue and helps us to form a balanced view. Used wisely, public inolvement in the media gives all of us a chance to let our voices to be heard.