A Conversation with Internews Interactive’s Evelyn Messinger

Katie Donnelly

Our round-up of engagement projects on MediaShift last year drew some attention from mediamakers. One of them was Evelyn Messinger, Executive Director of Internews Interactive, and producer of cross-platform programs for Link TV, PBS, and international outlets.

I recently had the chance to talk to Messinger to discuss citizen engagement in journalism, and her latest initiatives at Internews Interative, including a citizen engagement project in development for the 2012 elections.

According to the Internews Interactive website:

Internews Interactive, a non-profit pioneer of digital media convergence, has been integrating broadband with broadcasting since 1998.  InterAct draws on a 20-year history of award-winning interactive television productions that have linked people to each other, to their leaders and to the world. InterAct specializes in citizen participation, exploring new technologies and finding new ways to integrate broadband and broadcasting . . . InterAct has used ‘war-cams,’ on-line videochat rooms, internet cafes, and university videoconference networks as well as webcams, videomail and cellphones to connect people from within their own homes and communities to the power of television.

For the 2012 elections, Messinger explains, Internews Interative will be focusing on integrating an “unprecedented degree of citizen participation” in election coverage through their Digital Citizen initiative. Digital Citizen is designed as a series of live broadcasts that will air throughout the eight weeks leading up to the 2012 elections, with additional features online. On-air participants will include candidates, experts, and community members, who will be selected through online social network and group facilitation processes.

Messinger notes that historically, elections have been the time when citizen participation has been most welcome in mass media news coverage, with journalists functioning as knowledgeable arbiters between public opinion and political spin. Journalists serving in this capacity could help facilitate increased and informed citizen participation in political media. For example, during the 1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election, citizen journalists served to effectively convey the sentiments of their communities to the candidates.

The 2012 elections, Messinger points out, will be the first big elections with “fully converged media.” Radio, television, online news sites, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will need to work together to tell the entire election story. In recent years, user-generated media have grown tremendously, and although this has not been fully confirmed, it’s possible that citizen-produced media have influenced elections. In the 2009 health care town hall meetings, for example, videos of angry citizens yelling at their Congressional representatives were posted to YouTube. Below, David Hedrick sounds off to Congressman Brian Baird.

Hedrick’s video was picked up by Fox News, where he was repeatedly interviewed. At the time of this writing, Hedrick’s original video has 1,338,353 views.

These videos served a clear partisan purpose and ultimately rewarded disruptive behavior, but as Messinger points out, the fact that citizens turned into political stars based on their YouTube rants was groundbreaking. She suggests that public broadcasting stations may be able to adopt similar techniques (although not partisan or sensational) for incorporating greater citizen participation into their election coverage.

Digital Citizen builds upon a long history of citizen engagement initiatives from Internews Interactive, which are chronicled on the website. The site is divided into three main components: community (connecting Americans to each other), nation (connecting Americans to their leaders), and world (connecting Americans to the world). Each section of the site includes an archive of interactive, cross-platform projects dating back to 1998. For example, the SNAP project from 2003 incorporated live Internet video, a live satellite feed, and live viewer call-ins into a nationally broadcast television program. This may seem old hat in 2011 —Oprah Winfrey started using Skype on her show in 2005— but in 2003, it was groundbreaking. Watch some highlights below:

As this video demonstrates, citizen engagement in public media has come a long way since 2003, but there is still tremendous room to grow. As Messinger says, “Public media in a participatory democracy is inexorably moving toward more citizen engagement.”