As surely as as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, another catastrophic news event as significant as the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—be it a natural disaster or terrorist attack—will strike one of these days/months/years. News organizations from throughout the world will respond quickly by dispatching teams of reporters and photographers to the scene. And Peter Jennings (or his successor) will anchor from the center of it all.
Oops. That’s not the right response. Actually, before journalists even reach the scene, other “journalists” of a sort will be telling the news, by taking photographs and videos, writing personal accounts, or sharing others’ stories. All of their news will be distributed instantly and constantly and shared worldwide. And in a few hours—or maybe days, if the next catastrophe, like the tsunami, is in a part of the world far removed from Western media—mainstream news organizations will catch up. By then, people who just happened to be on the scene will have scooped the conventional newsgatherers by using cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, Wi-ficards, and Internet connections to get out word of what they’ve witnessed or heard.
The New Reporters
The news media landscape is changing. Journalists now share the spotlight, as tsunami coverage powerfully demonstrated. Citizen reporters, armed with 21st century technology, can “cover” a story in ways that mainstream journalists don’t:
Using camera cell phones and digital cameras, eyewitnesses can easily send their photographs to news outlets or friends, who then pass them along to others who might publish them on the Web or in blogs. Powerful and newsworthy photos snapped by “amateurs”—often taken while the event happened and well before the photojournalists’ planes have landed—now are seen spreading through the blog community, reaching millions of people when powerful images evoke strong emotions.
In a world in which anyone can publish a blog and have potential worldwide reach (for free, no less), stories from the scene of a disaster are being told not just through reporters, but also to a worldwide audience directly via the Internet. This means that accounts are being published that might make many editors recoil. Consider the posttsunami blog of a volunteer doctor describing in graphic detail (with grisly photos) the job of disposing of rotting bodies. His description of his reaction while tending to a child victim whose skull was crawling with maggots is a powerful piece of writing I won’t soon forget. I doubt that kind of graphic detail would survive the typical newspaper editorial process—too much potential for squeamish readers to cancel their subscriptions after losing their appetites at breakfast—yet there was great value in his story being told.
Unconventional “journalism” is being published by those who weren’t journalists before the event happened and probably won’t be once these stories have been told.
Am I suggesting that traditional reporters and photographers should feel threatened by this “alternative press”? No, no, no. Actually, all of this presents new opportunities for traditional journalism, but its practitioners will have to assume a different mindset to take advantage of it.
When the next big disaster occurs, another army of citizen reporters and photographers will instantly take shape. Among them, they will produce some powerful coverage that will augment— perhaps in some cases even outshine— the reporting of journalists. But those shiny nuggets of citizen-reported news will come amid a lot of dreck: bad writing, inaccurate reporting, and outright falsehoods alongside poorly conceived and confusing photos, even Photoshop-enhanced images designed to deceive.
The New Audience
Today’s audience for all this citizen journalism has the difficult task of trying to decide if what they read or see is accurate. Let’s face it, most of the public isn’t up to that task, and this is where professional editors need to enter the picture. So here’s my prescription for the news industry, to cope with—nay, to take advantage of—the age of citizen journalism:
Follow the lead of pioneers like BBC News Online, which routinely solicits reader photos, stories and commentary about major news events.
Get out of the old mindset of reporters only collecting and paraphrasing from eyewitnesses and instead let them have these sources say what they have to report directly to the public.
Incorporate citizen reporting and photography into the main online news product (and selectively in legacy media, too), so that Web readers can choose whether to look to the work of journalists or to amateur reporters and eyewitnesses. Some news companies are experimenting with citizen journalism, but are keeping it fenced off from the traditional news product. (The Bakersfield, Californian’s Northwest Voice citizen-journalism Web site has no branding or link to the parent newspaper. A better approach is that of MSNBC.com, which features a “Citizen Journalists Report” and solicits citizen reporting on major stories.)
Strike a balance between “anything goes” and “we decide, you read.” On a huge story, the number of citizen reports can be overwhelming. The “We the Media” ethos, championed by Dan Gillmor in his recent book of the same name, proclaims the importance of all voices being heard and published, but thousands of photos and personal stories of an earthquake’s devastation, for example, can be overwhelming. Allowing everyone who experienced a news event to have a voice is a noble endeavor, but temper it by selecting and highlighting the best stuff. There’s still value in letting it all run—as long as citizen contributions meet a news organization’s published standards—but most readers will only have time to view what’s been selected as the best.
Most importantly, apply editors’ skills to the process of assembling citizenreporting sections, weeding out the spoofs, the inaccurate, and the just plain bad. This is where journalism can apply its strengths to make citizens’ input something truly valuable to the news-consuming public.
Citizen “journalism” is still in its infancy—though the Indian Ocean tsunami helped it grow up a little faster. But there are real shortcomings right now. If another tsunami- level disaster struck tomorrow, online news consumers would still have to search through a variety of far-flung sources to unearth all the eyewitness photos, videos and personal accounts that would quickly begin flowing onto and through the Internet. It wouldn’t be easy.
The opportunity exists for savvy mainstream news organizations to establish themselves as the place to go for firsthand citizen and eyewitness reporting and the place where eyewitnesses know they can go to share their experiences and amateur reporting and be rewarded with a large audience.
Citizen journalism might be a train coming down the media-industry tracks. But it’s not on a collision course. Mainstream news organizations and journalists just need to jump on board.
Steve Outing is a senior editor for Poynter Online, an interactive-media columnist for Editor & Publisher Online, and a long-time observer of new-media trends.