CNN iReport.com Builds Cadre of Volunteer Video Journalists

Community Web site builds enthusiasm for contributed content.
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High-school student James Brierton of Nesconset, N.Y., has been playing at being a television reporter for years, but for the last two weeks of his summer vacation, he is getting a chance to do it at CNN in Atlanta as part of a paid internship.

Brierton is one of the volunteer contributors to iReport, CNN's effort to leverage the kind of TV citizen journalism made possible by today's consumer video-recording technology, and his work is frequently featured on iReport.com, CNN.com and occasionally on CNN's cable news channels.

"I definitely want to go into broadcast journalism -- whether in front of the camera or behind the camera I'm not quite sure yet," Brierton said.

Although the iReport initiative has been around since 2006, it has become more prominent since the launch of the iReport.com community Web site in February.

Before there was an iReport.com, iReport consisted of little more than an upload form on CNN.com, and relatively few of the videos submitted through that channel ever saw the light of day. However, the potential for it to turn into something more was dramatized in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007, when graduate student Jamal Albarghouti sent in cell phone video that showed police rushing the building where the shootings were taking place while shots were clearly audible from inside.

CNN wants iReport to be the first video site viewers think of to upload such highly newsworthy video clips, Wheatley said. On the other hand, in order to make uploading iReport video more of a habit for more people, they decided they needed to open up the process with a separate iReport.com Web site that would publish video uploads in a more YouTube-like fashion, rather than requiring prior editorial approval of each clip.

"When we originally started asking for iReports, the only people who would see them would be CNN personnel, so it would be sort of a black hole for the user, where they may or may not hear back from CNN," Wheatley said. Now, a team of Web-site moderators still reviews the clips, occasionally weeding out some that violate the published community standards. But what they're really looking for are clips that should be featured on the iReport home page and tagged with the "ON CNN" logo, which means they are eligible for use on air by CNN's cable channels or (more commonly) as on-demand video clips on CNN's family of Web sites.

"Our mission every day is to make it as easy as possible for viewers to engage with the news," Wheatley said, and that allows them to publish their own idiosyncratic personal stories, as well as their own editorial responses to CNN programming. For example, one viewer of CNN's Black in America documentary series organized a viewing party after which he gathered feedback on the program from his friends, a group of young black professionals.

Events such as a recent California earthquake generate lots of submissions that, even if they aren't perfectly shot and reported, give the personal experiences of viewers caught up in the event. And then there are the oddball day-in-the-life stories, like the one from a correspondent in Reykjavik about the "heat wave" sweeping Iceland, with temperatures reaching into the 70s.

"It actually generated a lot of discussion on the Web site," Wheatley said, as people in places like Texas made comparisons to what counts as a heat wave where they live.

Brierton first caught the attention of the CNN producers with his report on a Valentine's Day 2007 ice storm on Long Island, which got aired on CNN, as well as CNN.com.

Tyson Wheatley, one of the CNN producers who works on iReport, said Brierton pulled off a stand-up news report very much like what viewers would expect from a professional TV weather report.

Since then, in addition to a number of other weather-related stories, Brierton has turned in items such as a report from a fire where several animals were killed, which included video of firefighters trying to give oxygen to cats rescued from the building.

Brierton said he has received plenty of feedback from the CNN producers that has helped him to improve his video-shooting and editing techniques. During his internship stint, he will get more of a chance to see how a professional news organization operates from the inside, Wheatley said.

CNN hopes to offer similar internship opportunities to three iReport participants per year from now on.

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