The BBC aired pictures of the attacks, On July 7, 2005, four terrorists exploded bombs on three trains and one bus in London, killing more than 50 people, including themselves. The BBC aired pictures of the attacks and news organizations around the world used portions of the BBC coverage. One of the unusual aspects of those pictures was that many of them were not shot by BBC news videographers. Instead, private citizens who happened to be on the scene used their cellular telephones, digital cameras and other current everyday technology to collect images of the destruction and chaos and send them to the BBC. In turn, BBC acknowledged that non-BBC employees gathered some of the images its viewers were seeing.
About a month later several fans watching the University of Texas football team during a pre-season practice used cellular phones to capture pictures of an injured player as he left the field. The team's coach, Mack Brown, reacted angrily because the pictures made it into the news before he had a chance to notify the player's family of the injury (which was not serious and certainly not life-threatening). Brown responded by banning reporters and fans from all but one of the Longhorns' remaining pre-season practices.
More recently, and demonstrating that private citizens also can be called upon to gather video of on-going events, television news organizations and Web sites have been presenting images gathered by (or blogs written by) men and women throughout the Middle East, where Iraq and the Israeli-Lebanese border conflicts remain prominent international stories. An article in the Seattle Times noted that the Internet site YouTube (http://www.youtube.com) has collected reports, video, and opinion pieces from the region prepared by local men and women. The Web site, which encourages its participants to "Broadcast Yourself," has become "a video Dumpster for a global audience to share firsthand reports, military strategies, propaganda videos and personal commentary about a violent conflict as it unfolds. Anyone can post movies for free, and the site boasts that 100 million videos are watched daily." (Seattle Times, July 26, 2006)
Obviously, in an environment as fractured as the Middle East, media organizations need to be especially careful about the stories they report. Mistakes, rumors, or outright lies can make it into the news, and they can add to the uncertainty in an already volatile situation. However, this concern has not eliminated the participation of non-journalists in the information gathering process. The Seattle Times report reminded its readers that the YouTube individual reports "are offered alongside those from the BBC and CNN."
In all three of these examples, mainstream media-the organizations to which the world's citizens traditionally turn for information collected by professional journalists-relied on private citizens to be very influential in the collection and dissemination of news.
This paper is an initial response to a developing journalistic trend, seeking to shine a critical light on these so-called "accidental" or "citizen" journalists: Men and women with little, if any, journalism training who are capturing images and potential news stories through their cell phones and other personal technology-and seeing their work get on the air (or available on easy-to-access, popular Web sites). At the end of the paper, there are a number of questions and implied suggestions for news managers and for the teachers of the next generation of broadcast journalists, in an effort to help them decide when and how citizen journalist video ought to be used.
The practice of this kind of citizen journalism certainly is not illegal, provided that the citizen journalist does not break any laws in gathering potential news material. Moreover, there is a long history of print and broadcast news organizations seeking to involve the public in locating and identifying possible news stories (i.e., "Call into our newsroom to report a news tip"). However, to encourage the public to call in a news tip (not to mention reporters interviewing citizens-in-the-street about their reaction to public policy or because he or she was an eyewitness to an event) is far different than it is to ask those individuals to gather news. Or is it? My argument is that there is a fundamental difference, and I believe that news executives and journalism educators must consider some critical, ethical, and professional questions associated with non-journalists becoming instant news gatherers.
A story written by Associated Press reporter David Bauder (July 11, 2005) suggested that news executives appear eager to receive material submitted by the citizen journalist. "I think you're looking at a portent of things to come," NBC News president Neil Shapiro said, in reference to the images provided in London. Chuck Lustig, the director of foreign news coverage for ABC News, said amateur video and other images captured by non-journalists takes "the viewer to an event as the event was happening and that's always something that's astonishing." One voice of caution belonged to Jonathan Klein, CNN's U. S. news chief, who noted that the potential for hoaxes mandates that news operations check the veracity of any material they receive.
The MSNBC.com Web site has established a link from its home page that encourages people to "be part of the dialogue of the issues affecting everyone" (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6348977). A quick glance at the Web site's citizen journalist page indicates that more than two-dozen reports from citizen journalists have been chronicled by (and stored on) the site, starting in 2004. That number is sure to increase as the concept of citizen journalism gains credibility within professional newsrooms and the number of people with digital cameras and cell phones grows.
There are obvious reasons why the citizen journalist concept appeals to both news managers and the general public. It provides news organizations with instantaneous access to compelling stories. It also offers the opportunity for news organizations to provide more realistic coverage to their news consumers. Instead of a gratuitous live shot from a location long after the real event took place, the viewer can actually see what happened, perhaps in real time, as the story developed. Moreover, the raw, unedited video gives viewers the chance to formulate their own opinions about what took place and what it means to them. In other words, there is no professional journalist providing a condensed version of events that easily fits into a packaged news story. But it is important to remember that while the citizen journalist provides a first look at an event, professionally-trained journalists will be on the scene in the subsequent hours, days, and weeks; and they will chronicle the funerals, investigations, or similar follow-up reports. In other words, news operations can still argue that they "own" a story despite not being there at the time it happened. Finally, the eyewitness has the satisfaction of being part of the story itself.
Nevertheless, this optimism about citizen journalism needs to be tempered. While citizen journalists offer exciting opportunities for news managers, they also can lead to unintended problems. In addition, journalism educators need to consider both the positive and negative aspects of citizen journalism.
There are at least four issues that apply to this consideration:
News filtering. Perhaps for purposes of this essay, "news filtering" might better be called "news judgment." One doesn't need to know much of the theoretical literature about journalism (White, 1950; Berkowitz, 1990; Bleske, 1991, among others) to know that one of its most important characteristics is its gatekeeping function. As the name suggests, news professionals-because of their academic training and professional experience-are equipped with the tools required to recognize a news story and to see that it gets into print or on the screen. They work with similarly trained individuals, even though they might not personally know them-such as the reporters, videographers, sound recordists, graphic artists, editors (of words and video) and producers who might be far away and employed by a wire service or network-to ensure that important news stories are presented to viewers. The gatekeeper also rejects a sizable number of news stories because, in his or her judgment, they can be (among other things) not newsworthy or lacking in relevance to a particular audience.
The accidental or citizen journalist does not have this professional experience and this eye for news. This is not to suggest that these deficiencies automatically eliminate them as potential news gatherers. However, it does suggest that they may be capable of nothing more than aiming the cell phone's camera feature at something interesting and pushing the right button. The richness and texture of "good video" easily can be lost. The identification of what makes an event "news" also can be absent-which is why even the most dramatic footage needs to be selected by a professional.
A member of the public can be a videographer for a day, but asking him or her to understand the nuances of journalism is not possible. They cannot grasp the techniques that make the video component of television news so powerful, and they may be completely unaware of the ethical and legal issues associated with gathering news material. These weaknesses put added pressure on already overworked news managers, producers and editors who must make snap decisions about images collected at a news event.
Generally speaking, citizen journalist video is used when there is no professional videographer present. The "Zapruder film" of President John F. Kennedy's assassination is a particularly well-known example. In these situations the citizen journalist is not merely filling in for the star player, he or she suddenly must be the star and must deliver the key hit or throw the critical touchdown pass in the biggest game of the season. The chances of failure-or at least for not doing the best job possible-are high. I realize that the reader at this point could very well be thinking "sure, but some video is better than nothing at all." Is it? Are images that can be unclear or out of focus worthy of being aired simply because they are the only ones available at a particular time? Do such images assist news operations in telling the story? Moreover, how can a news producer or anchor assist in describing the video or asking questions about it when communication with the person who shot it almost certainly is absent?
Cost. Professional news organizations and individual journalists have taken a series of hits to their credibility in the past couple of years. However, no one would argue that the public is prepared to completely abandon the media. Put another way, the media still enjoy a level of respect, although the public is justifiably saying "you can do better." Because of this positive recognition, young men and women continue to flood into journalism schools (Becker et. al., 2005), and the public continues to buy newspapers (though in declining numbers) and watch television news (Project for Excellence in Journalism). The increasing use of the Internet and other means of distributing content haven't made much of a dent in our need for information about what is going on in the world.
Taking the interest in being a journalist one step further, being aired is also a reward for being in that place at that time. A significant portion of the public is excited about the opportunity to be "part of" the news. They can do that as citizen journalists, they can keep their "day job," and it costs a news operation nothing. (Of course, there is nothing to prevent a news organization from paying for the material they get from a private citizen, but it is not obligated to make a financial payment.)
Using this economic model, it is understandable why news managers would welcome citizen journalists: They are literally "free"-lancers. News managers can be tempted to accept less than professional-quality work because it could be their opportunity to beat the competition to the story. Furthermore, these images-especially when they are gathered at events such as the London bombings-add to the drama of a developing story and may keep a viewer tuned in.
However, the station or newspaper will need to ensure that relatively high-priced professional employees are on hand to process and evaluate this "free" pictorial matter. On balance, it is probable that serendipity played a role in getting footage that otherwise wouldn't have been obtained, and the professional staff can thus be assigned to follow-up, sidebar, or additional stories-which probably will benefit the station's bottom line.
Profits. In the current economic climate of all news operations, profits matter. Here again, one need not be well-versed in the academic literature to know that there is a real tension between a news organization's right to make money and its duty to inform the public (Herman and Chomsky, 1988; McChesney, 2000). Getting news cheap is one element of this issue. However, there also is the chronic concern of news managers and academics about the number of people who work in a television newsroom on a daily basis. For example, the 2005 State of the News Media report noted that the number of newsroom employees had remained virtually steady from 1998 through 2003, but the amount of news being produced by local news operations had increased to 3.7 hours per day from the 3.25 that had been offered in 2001, the last year for which comparable data were available (Project for Excellence in Journalism). Without a doubt, in this period when news teams are overworked and understaffed the citizen journalist is permitted-even encouraged, by those responsible for the news organization's profits-to become a news gatherer. The paid staffer might not be present, but the need to "feed the beast" and continue to collect, process and disseminate news remains.
The citizen journalist somewhat sarcastically was described as a "free"-lancer earlier in this paper. But there is a precedent for using private citizens with varying degrees of journalism experience as news gatherers. The newspaper industry for many years has relied on a network of correspondents to assist in news reporting. These correspondents are not full-time employees, but they are located in distinct geographical areas and they regularly file reports about issues that appear in their region. The news editor takes the work and makes whatever changes are necessary before the story is placed in the newspaper. The reporter or "stringer" may or may not receive a by-line, but her or his work is used.
Proponents of using the accidental journalist trend may adopt this example to bolster the argument that the citizen journalist can fulfill the same function for broadcast journalism as the traditional newspaper or magazine correspondent or "op-ed" columnist. Here again, one must consider that the immediacy of broadcast news is one of its fundamental qualities. The newspaper editor, unless the correspondent's report is sent on deadline (which is unlikely), can devote time to dissecting and editing what the correspondent has written. The television news producer, when news often happens on a moment's notice, usually does not have the luxury of taking time to analyze the video (or other information) that has come into the newsroom and must make a split-second decision made about whether to present this information to the public. And, in addition to deciding about news values, producers must bear in mind their responsibilities for ethical and legal consequences of what is aired.
Education. How should journalism educators respond to the citizen journalist phenomenon? They train, nurture, and challenge their students to understand the multiple facets of a news story. How to find, write, shoot, edit, fact-check, and apply ethical and legal standards are among the many skills they need to cultivate. Many journalism programs also require that their undergraduate students complete at least one internship. Ideally, in this internship the student will have the chance to experience every component of a newscast's preparation--inside and outside the newsroom. Educators also encourage former students to keep plugging in order to get airtime or space for their stories, and to continue to learn their craft and believe in themselves as they break into the demanding news business. Suddenly, along comes Joe or Jill Q. Public, a person with no news experience, who happened to be standing fifty feet away when two trains collided-and thus accidentally becomes the type of journalist that the journalism student always wanted to be: On the scene when spot, developing, or breaking news happens. Jill or Joe gets on-the-air (in some form) while the struggling but better prepared journalist continues to toil in anonymity. Obviously, luck plays a part in everyone's life.
Carrying this thought forward, if the standard practices and theoretical knowledge of journalism education that students receive, but citizen journalists do not, are dismissed, then a larger, more dangerous question is posed: For what good is journalism education?
News is not the exclusive domain of professional journalists (who for purposes of this essay are defined as people who are employed as news managers, writers, reporters, anchors, videographers, producers and editors); people lacking the academic and professional experience of daily journalists have become part of the news process, like it or not. However, if journalism educators do not ask critical questions about the increasing use of citizen journalists, then a terrible disservice is being done to their former, current, and future students.
There is no question that the combination of 24-hour news cycles, reduced newsroom staffing, the pressure to be profitable, and modern technology is contributing to the increasing participation of citizen journalists in the news-gathering process. These cellular-phone carrying, digital-camera toting men and women have entered the newsroom because they are a free and readily available source of photographs and video. But their absence of real experience-and thought based on that experience-should not immediately eliminate them as potential news gatherers. The onus is placed on news managers to make important judgments about the use of citizen journalist video before that video ever enters the newsroom.
The Key Questions
How should news editors and managers judge whether accidental journalist video should be accepted for publication or airing? Here are some of the questions that should be asked.and answered:
- What are the ethical and legal standards actually used in your newsroom?
- Who should be tasked with making sure that standards are followed?
- Does everyone in the newsroom who is empowered to make decisions as to what is aired, have a firm understanding of their media outlet's, and their profession's, standards?
- Are all news producers, videographers and reporters--including part-timers--aware of these standards and understand the need to follow them?
- Is there ever a reason to lower (or ignore) the prescribed standards?
- Do your staffing patterns and schedules ensure that someone capable of making decisions about citizen journalism video is always on duty, recognizing that news can occur at any time?
- If one of your employees was placed in a situation of having to decide on the spur of the moment whether to accept a citizen journalist's video submission, would he or she be able to do that in such a way as to serve the interests of your station and your viewers?
- How do you know the images provided by a citizen journalist are legitimate? What verification system has your newsroom established to ensure that staged or fake--or indecent, considering current FCC priorities--video is not allowed onto your air? Does that verification system need to be updated to reflect that non-professionals and other unsupervised sources might be submitting "great" video to your news station?
- Does the material submitted to you by the citizen journalist meet the ethical and legal standards you would use for material shot and/or written by an employee?
- If the video doesn't meet technical standards of quality (i.e. exposure, contrast, color, framing, composition) expected from a professional videographer, what should be done?
- Will the proposed move to HDTV or other higher video standards change the standards of acceptability of citizen-provided video?
- Should all video be screened by a supervisor before it airs so that its context can be imparted to the viewer? This also could help the viewer "see" what is not clear ("The unsteady images result from the photographer running from the explosion") or calling their attention to a particular point ("Keep your eye on the upper-left hand corner of your screen. You are about to see.").
- Are the standards for all video high enough?
- How can these pictures, brought in by someone you don't know, benefit the viewer?
- How can potential biases-or other axes to grind, often of a commercial or political nature--be identified?
- Are news values adequately considered before video (or stills) are accepted or is there a tendency to accept pictures based only on their shock value?
- What should you do if the public will ask "why is this videographer taking pictures when he should have been rescuing a victim, or calling for an ambulance-and, even though there may be a policy in place for a professional staffer, you don't know what the accidental journalist's options were?
The availability of television itself, and color television, along with portable and mobile cameras and recorders have made tremendous differences in television news production and the education and training for it. But these revolutions may not be as significant for the public as the current ubiquity of digital cameras, cell phones, and similar "consumer" gadgets that permit the average citizen's technology to substitute for the professional coverage with which we have become familiar over the past six decades.
To presume that accidental, or citizen, journalism is a passing fad is akin to sticking one's head in the sand and denying reality. It is here, and seems to be here to stay-with all its promises and potential dangers. While predictions are hard to make with confidence, we shouldn't adopt new practices without considering all their implications. The potentials of television, and the effects of accidental or citizen journalism, are too important to our society to be considered only as an accounting artifact or an unintended consequence of the consumer electronics business.
Bauder, D. (July 11, 2005). "A New Tool for Television News Coverage: Cellular Phone Cameras." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p. C-1.
Becker, L. B., Vlad, T., Hennink-Kaminski, H., & Coffey, A. J. (2004). "2003-2004 Enrollment Report: Growth in Field Keeps up with Trend." Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, Vol. 59, pp. 278-298.
Berkowitz, D. (1990). "Refining the Gatekeeping Metaphor for Local Television News." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Vol. 34, pp. 55-68.
Bleske, G. (1991). "Ms. Gates Takes Over: An Updated Version of a 1949 Case Study." Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 12, pp. 88-97.
Goo, S. K. (July 26, 2006). "YouTube.com Users Explore Israel-Hezbollah Violence." Seattle Times, p. 3.
Herman, E. & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.
McChesney, R. (2000). Rich Media, Poor Democracy. New York: New Press.
Project for Excellence in Journalism (2005). "2005 State of the News Media." On-line: http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2005/index.asp.
White, D. M. (1950). "The 'Gate Keeper:' A Case Study in the Selection of News." Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 27, pp. 383-396.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.7,35-38.