After the July bomb blasts that rocked London’s subways and a bus, the BBC reported that it had received 1,000 photos from camera-cellphone users, along with 20 pieces of amateur video. Go to MSNBC.com, and you can read a gripping minute-by-minute account of a woman who was caught in the Tube but was one of the lucky ones to escape. The new Current cable network lets Web-site users watch amateur video and then vote to greenlight some of them to be shown on the channel itself.
The undeniable and generally terrific news is that “citizen journalism,” as B&C’s cover story chronicles this week (page 14), is making reporters out of everyone. The London-subway photos are the most dramatic examples of how the combination of new technology and ordinary folk is bringing a wider world of information to us.
We know: A lot of the blogs we read are misinformed junk or self-indulgent screeds. A lot of the cellphone photos we see are blurry, and cellphone photography can be used for prurient, invasive pursuits.
But a world populated with witnesses to history who can also document it ultimately serves the public by keeping it more informed. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that the “first day story”—in journalistic terms, the story that all the competitors must follow—”isn’t even the property of professional journalists anymore.” It’s being told first by the people.
There is a sad admission about citizen journalism that should be owned up to: It fills a void. “Professional journalists” may indeed have gotten too far into the forest to see the real stories all around them. News organizations may have grown too big to care about the kind of “small” news that citizen journalism extols. The Mainstream Media—we MSMs—can be driven by a formulaic “objectivity” that results in half-truths.
While it is easy to romanticize citizen journalists, the sturdy standards of traditional journalists—like truth and fairness and maintaining a certain distance from our subjects—are important. Correct spelling is a good thing, too.
There are also unspoken attributes about old-style news reporting. News directors across America have chosen to protect viewers from images too violent or grotesque or intrusive, but those photos and videos will certainly be captured by cellphone cameras and distributed over the Web.
Words can also wound. On citizen-journalism blogs, like one in suburban Chicago that we’ve seen, a “reporter” can accuse a police force of being involved in armed kidnapping, deviant sexual assault and murder. No reputable newspaper would print accusations like that without overwhelming evidence.
Still, with firm standards of taste and accuracy, news directors also should be encouraging (and paying for) citizen journalists to become extra eyes and ears for the newsroom, pointing out neighborhood problems or successes that deserve a wider audience.
That’s great participatory journalism. For a medium like television, uniquely capable of serving the many communities that make up its viewing area, the fact that those viewers would also contribute to sharing information is a wondrous throwback to the days when neighbors looked out for each other. We like this trend.