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MPR and Citizen Journalism

Page history last edited by Steve Escher 15 years, 3 months ago



Minnesota bridge collapse: How should the investigation proceed?


... as I understand it, the bridge was last inspected in 2005 and found to be structurally deficient due to cracking. Now, bridges are known to crack and cracks are known to cause bridge failures. Not every crack will cause failure, but crack growth can be highly unpredictable and finding the line between an "acceptable crack" and a potentially dangerous one is a nerve wracking decision and the engineer charged with this decision often comes under external pressure to do what is expedient.


If I had my way all bridges with the same structural deficiency rating, or worse than the I-35 bridge would
be shut down and repaired. However, even if the money was available for this, the result would be traffic gridlock from Manhatten to San Francisco.                                            

Jack C.

  C., Jack. (2007, 4 August). Message posted to http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977078428





















MPR and citizen journalists collaborate on the 35W Bridge collapse


Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) collaborated more extensively with citizens than any other traditional news organization in reporting the 35W Bridge collapse. When the bridge fell, MPR was able to immediately deploy its existing citizen participation projects including Your Voice, gather.com and Public Insight Journalism to tap public sources for expertise and information and to gather user-generated content and ideas. By leveraging crowd-sourcing and web-based tools to gather user-generated content, MPR enabled audience members to make a substantial contribution [1]. Journalists and other media observers generally agree that the partnership between professional journalists and citizens improved MPR’s coverage of the disaster.



Technology for citizen participation


Journalists at MPR used a variety of web-based tools to contact and collaborate with audience members and other citizens to report the story on the 35W Bridge collapse.


• Discussion forums on Gather.com

MPR currently hosts a total of 10 asynchronous forum discussion groups moderated by professional journalists on Gather.com, a social networking service. Julia Schrenkler, MPR’s interactive producer, facilitated numerous discussions on various aspects of the bridge collapse in the group Minnesota Life.


• Posting query on website

Within moments of the collapse, MPR posted a query on its website soliciting information from readers and listeners (Everheart current.org 13.08.07). Readers were invited to contribute their experiences, photos, video, and other information to MPR’s coverage of the story. The query read:


Help MPR News cover the collapse of the 35W bridge and its aftermath.

If you were directly affected by the bridge collapse, or if you have insights or expertise that will help us with follow-up coverage, please share what you know with us.

    –How were you affected by the collapse of the 35W bridge?

    –What else should we now about the collapse of the 35W bridge?

    –Do you have any special knowledge that would give you insight into the bridge’s history, is collapse, or related issues?

    –If so, what is it? May we publish your comments on our Web site?”


• Opportunities for reader commentary on news items and MPR’s various blogs

Readers could also comment on existing blogs by MPR journalists and news reports.



MPR engaged audience immediately


MPR’s journalists deployed these tools within minutes of the bridge collapse. Schrenkler, for example, opened a discussion on the event on Gather.com at 8:53 p.m. on 1 August. She posted a brief account of her trip to the scene, photos and a request to readers: “Please share your photos or information with Minnesota Public Radio News.” Within two hours of the bridge query posting, responses began flooding the newsroom. Audience members called in or uploaded eye-witness reports, photos and video shot immediately after the bridge fell. Many also expressed their reactions to the disaster and concern for the victims and their families. Not long after, readers began contributing opinion and analysis on the cause of the collapse, political issues, victim’s compensation and many other aspects of the disaster.



How to pay for bridge repair?

As far as paying for this, I know that most Minnesotans are willing to pay higher taxes. We are, for the most part, a people who recognize that it takes money to create and maintain a stable, safe, workable society. We believe in the common good. We're a blue state, despite the fact that we have a Republican governor and one Republican senator, both of whom run for the hills at the mention of tax hikes (although they've changed that tune, at least when it comes to funds for road and bridge improvements).


I'm not saying that we like to pay taxes. Who does? However, we see the correlation between taxes and our public goods, such as roads, bridges, public schools, electric grids, police and fire departments, and so on.


  Zeldapie. (2007, 6 August). Message posted to http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977075921





















Results of audience collaboration


• Early reports based on user-generated content

Reporters and analysts for Public Insight Journalism followed up on eyewitness accounts first and incorporated them into the MPR’s initial reports on the bridge collapse. The story, “Witnesses to a disaster,” for example, was posted on August 2, 2007. It included both written and audio accounts by eye-witnesses as well as photos taken by amateur photographers either on the scene or who arrived shortly thereafter to document the event. The compilation of stories is compelling and “ … provide a very personal window on one of the biggest disasters in the state’s history.”


An article published on the website on 3 August, “Perspectives from residents and commuters,” was a compilation of perspectives of area residents and commuters who had a connection with the bridge collapse. Audience members shared their thoughts on “… what it means to have taken another route that day, to where money for bridge repairs may have been misspent, and what the area was like before the bridge went up.”


Another article published on 6 August, “Two survivors were on their way to a soccer game,” recounts the terrifying experience of two women who survived the bridge collapse. The photos published with the story were also taken by the victims.


• Discussion forums

Schrenkler facilitated a series of discussion forums in the Minnesota Life group on Gather.com from 1 August through October.

  • The initial discussion running from 1 August 3 August emphasized immediate reactions to the disaster, concern for victims, media reports and eventually speculation about the cause of the collapse and political issues. This initial discussion garnered 56 comments. 
  • Schrenkler framed subsequent discussions with an article or blog from MPR and/or a set of questions and facilitated the following thread of conversation. Discussions included the following questions:

                    A view from (almost) the bridge? (2 August • 6 comments)

                    How should the investigation proceed? (3 August • 16 comments)

                    How to Pay for Bridge Repair? (4 August • 29 comments)

                    Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: What is the path to normalcy? (6 August • 6 comments)

                    Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: What is the political fallout? (7 August • 45 comments)

                    Share your reactions to the Minneapolis 35W Bridge design (9 October • 16 comments)


A sampling of other items posted on Gather.com include a wide variety of topics such as the safety of bridges, personal reactions to and reflections on the disaster, professional perspectives on the cause of the collapse, related political issues such as taxes for transportation infrastructure, etc. The following links offer a few examples of the content on the bridge collapse published on Gather.com:


  • Article on bridge safety, “TODAY’S TALKER: How Safe Are Our Bridges?” by the Gather Editorial Team posted on 2 August. (27 comments) The editors asked readers, “So Gather Members, do you believe the bridges in you area are safe? Are you concerned about driving over them? Please share your thoughts.”
  • A series of articles by Bill Kallman, an engineer and Gather.com member who was investigating the cause of the bridge collapse. 
  • A very personal and thought provoking piece about the collapse by gather.com member, Greg Schiller, “The Bridge in Minneapolis,” posted on 2 August. 
  • Bridge the Gap for Clean Water Funding,” An article addressing water quality issues related to the bridge collapse posted by the Food & Water Watch, a consumer organization that advocates for clean food and water.


As of April 2008, a search on Gather.com for “35W Bridge” returns 2,130 results (although many of these do not seem to be related).


•  Special website: “Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

MPR developed a special website devoted to news and information on the bridge disaster. The site offers all of MPR’s ongoing news on the story as well as reports on traffic, victims, multimedia and content contributed by audience members. A significant section of the site, “Personal Stories,” is comprised of the personal stories, commentaries and personal perspectives, photos, video and first-person accounts of readers and listeners gathered through MPR’s Your Voice project.



Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: What is the political fallout?

Lost in the question of maintenance is the fact that the operational load on that bridge was expanded to well above what the original designers planned to go on it. I think we need to go all the way back to those people who thought “oh we can just add another lane or two to the bridge” among side of the list of people who thought “oh it’s only deficient … it’s not like it's going to collapse tomorrow right?”


Christopher B.

  B., Christopher. (2007, 6 August). Message posted to http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977078428














Partnership with citizens improved MPR’s coverage


MPR began the Public Insight Journalism project four years ago but the system had never been deployed for such a story on the scale of the bridge collapse or to gather participants’ own accounts and photos of a catastrophic event [2]. Although the event challenged the system, media observers and MPR’s journalists generally agree that partnering with audience members improved MPR’s coverage of the 35W Bridge collapse.


David Erickson, a local expert on internet marketing, praised MPR’s work with citizen journalists to report the bridge story. Writing in his blog on August 4, Erickson claims that “The most deliberate integration of citizen journalism into traditional reporting … was showcased by Minnesota Public Radio with their Public Insight Journalism effort. MPR put their citizen journalism effort front and center on the top of the page of their Minneapolis bridge collapse section with a link to the Your Voice section.


Not only did MPR ask listeners for their photos, commentaries, perspectives and first-person accounts, but they also asked listeners to lend their expertise to help shed light on the story and hosted discussions about the bridge collapse in their social networking service, Gather.com.” Moreover, Erickson states that MPR treated citizen journalists as “co-equals” with professionals in covering the disaster. Despite the valuable contributions they can make, other local MSM organizations “held citizen journalists at arm’s length” rather than partnering with them to tell the story [3].


Journalist Andrew Haeg’s experience support Erickson’s comments. Haeg, who is senior producer for the Center for Innovation in Journalism at American Public Media, noted that audience members played a substantive role in covering the story. “This is not just about getting amateur journalists to share their thoughts,” Haeg said. “It’s bringing whatever content we can to bear on news stories and intermingling it with our news coverage [4].”


MPRs Julia Schrenkler on Citizen Journalism


References: MPR and Citizen Journalism on the 35W Bridge Collapse


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