Media, community and the creative citizen: personal media ecology timelines

Jerome Turner and Dave Harte, Birmingham City University

Media, Community and the Creative Citizen is an AHRC-funded major research project under the Connected Communities programme. This project consists of three complimentary strands investigating the nature, practices, and value of various forms of creative citizenship in the UK: hyperlocal publishing, community-led design, and creative networks. The participatory method described here was designed for a workshop, working with members of the public in order to explore their everyday news media consumption practices.


Disciplinary background(s) Journalism, audience studies, community studies

When did the research take place? The project spans 30 months, ending in November 2014, but this particular method was first used in workshops taking place November 2012.

Aims of research 

Hyperlocal publishing is a term used to describe the emergence of neighbourhood news websites in the UK, sometimes in response to the scaling back of traditional media. The aim of the method, in this instance, was to contribute to two ongoing case studies of hyperlocal publishers, which includes a study of potential and existing audiences in those case study geographical areas. The timeline method described here specifically sought to tease out the various ways that people consume (whether by osmosis or design) news and ‘information’ throughout the day, first on a very general level, and then looking at local news. These findings might then inform the hyperlocal practitioners’ practices.

Description of creative research method

The timeline method described appeared halfway through a two-hour focus group, whereby we had already entered into discussion about news events, so the ice had been broken within the group. The timeline process then followed in three steps:

1.Your day (5 minutes)

Participants are each handed a landscape A1 sheet which had already been marked with a horizontal axis and numbered with hours of the day from 5am to midnight. They are asked to block out, below the line, the main types of activity that make up their day, but without too much thought or detail. The facilitator demonstrates this on their own example sheet.

2. Your everyday news consumption (15 minutes)

The participants are then given stickers graphically representing various types of media: television, radio, internet, Facebook, Twitter, face to face chat, telephone, local newspaper, national newspaper, magazine (4 are offline or traditional, 4 are online). They place the stickers on the timeline to show when they are using these media in a typical day to consume news, where news is framed as not just hard news but also finding out new information about anything topical or timely e.g. finding out an uncle is sick. The stickers should not overlap each other, but should stack vertically like a column graph. Participants can use a pen to draw a bracket or umbrella depicting a long period rather than using multiple stickers. Participants are also encouraged to note in pen details of these media e.g. newspaper name. Facilitator again demonstrates this on their sheet.

3. Local news consumption (5 minutes)

Participants were finally asked to place dot stickers on those instances of media news consumption that at least included (if not entirely consisted of) some local news.

media ecologies 1

media ecologies 2

Why did you choose to use this method? 

It was inspired by a timeline method used by colleagues on the project. They were creating timelines with participants who were working within the arts and, it was expected, had more experience of doing such workshop activities. Therefore, we sought to break down the process into meaningful but manageable steps that helped our participants (members of the public) tell their story.

We were also looking for a method that would really allow people to explore and describe how they digest news, whether by intention or osmosis. The alternative might have been to simply ask “Where do you find out news in the day?” It’s expected that many people would have answered “I watch the news before going to bed”, or “I read the paper”, without truly exploring their intake throughout the day.

There was also an element of looking for a practical ‘hands on’ method within the workshop.

What did you learn from the research process? 

Participants were able to follow the instructions accurately within the timeline, and needed little additional guidance. Where they deviated slightly from how we expected them to place the stickers and draw, this was no problem, and could even be said to add meaning to the data (see next point). As a novel exercise, people did not unhelpfully try to second guess the process and jump ahead, deliberating and concentrating on each step, as required.

Despite the fact that graphs are usually considered representation of quantitative data, in this instance, the method is largely qualitative because participants do, and are allowed to, interpret their application of the process in a way that seems fit or appropriate to them, as a narrative. i.e. it’s not simply where they place the stickers, but how, and why. Various individual media narratives could be recorded and analysed. E.g. many participants described having media on “in the background”, usually in the case of traditional media such as radio (in the mornings) and television (in the evenings). Where social media such as Twitter and Facebook were mentioned, they tended to be ‘peppered’ more thinly throughout the day.

One other reason that this couldn’t be applied as a quantitative exercise is because of the limited numbers of participants, 10 in this case. However, with larger numbers completing the task, the individual stickers and ‘local’ dots applied could be analysed as data to ascertain whether patterns emerge. E.g. it would be possible to recreate the process as a ‘drag and drop’ website exercise which could then be accessed by thousands of participants.

One unintended outcome was that completion of the task, and ensuing discussion, made participants think differently about news media. In many cases they were surprised to find how much news they are taking in throughout the day, and how they are doing it.

Finally, the process of breaking down a complex exercise into staged, but still meaningful, parts would be applicable to other situations. Participants were pleasantly surprised by the narrative they had recorded by the end of the three steps.

Influences

The method was initially inspired by research colleagues on the Creative Citizens project who had used timelines and stickers to explore different ideas; the project as a whole often shares ideas, methods and expertise across the strands. The idea of a ‘hands on’ exercise was also influenced by the researchers’ experience of running focus groups, where it is often advisable to break up long periods of semi-structured conversation with activities. This means varying kinds of data can be recorded, but also helps prevent participants from tiring.

Further information

Full details of the project can be found at: http://wwwcreativecitizens.co.uk

Some of the completed media ecology sheets can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crtvcitizens/sets/72157633570893082/

A further blog post about the process can be found here: http://creativecitizens.co.uk/2012/12/20/exploring-media-ecologies-a-workshop-exercise/

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