The Dangers of Citizen Journalism

The current events in Iran have clearly shown us citizen journalism may bring us news and snapshots of activities denied to traditional reporters. The CNN “iReport” shows events on the streets of Tehran denied to the professional cameras and interpretation of CNN’s seasoned staff. However, to bring us those iReports, citizen journalists take on risks normally avoided by citizens. It that risk too high? The dangers too great?

On June 20th a citizen journalist submitted a video showing the brutal death (“Youtube Please don’t delete. This is happening in streets of my country World should know.”) of a young Iranian woman protester on streets of Tehran. The motivation for taking the video was to ensure the rest of the world would be exposed to the horrific cost of the demonstrations in the streets, and the struggle would not be suppressed or forgotten. The individual taking the video clearly put himself in great danger, making a decision the cost of recording this event was too import to be lost to history.

Fox News recently teamed with MySpace to encourage citizen journalists to submit their stories via the “uReport” upload utility. The Weather Channel asks viewers to submit their videos of hurricanes and tornados, and local stations such as CBS 4 in Denver which made national news when a 6 year old girl uploaded images and video of a tornado cloud forming with a cheap child’s toy camera.

In a previous article discussing wild fires in Santa Barbara, California, students using Twitter made news by taking on the role of both emergency services and new media. The students not only kept the news media informed of real-time events and status of the wild fire, but also acted as a first line of notification to the local community by sending out warnings to evacuate as the fire rapidly moved into residential communities.

The desire for people to gain their 15 minutes of fame may compel them to take a more active citizen journalist role. KTLA (CW), a local broadcast station in Los Angeles tries to get their professional reporters into the best proximity of any breaking story, including the wild fires frequently affecting Southern California.

KTLA goes to great effort explaining to their viewers each of their reporters goes through extensive training with CalFire (the state’s main fire agency) to ensure they are able to not only get as close as possible to the fires, but also are aware of the best way to protect themselves from fire. They are also most often embedded with fire teams that are also well-protected in the event a fire changes and puts the team in danger.

Citizen journalists usually do not have the training to understand either the dangers of recording disasters or dangerous events, and may take unreasonable risks in their attempt to record the event.

As news services and media continue to suffer the effects of an economy or changing media environment, we will continue to see more requests and encouragement for citizen journalists to supplement traditional journalism. This is good, as it greatly increases the potential sources of images, video, and on-the-scene information. It also increases the potential for fraud and possible misrepresentation of “fact,” which would normally pass through the checks and balances of editors and publishers.

Citizen journalism is here to stay. Multimedia-enabled mobile phones, Twitter, email, and other social networking media make recording events and transmitting those images and reports around the world a simple and immediate process. Like any other source of unverified information, we need to be vigilant in our skepticism of those events.

Recording history is essential to our ability to understand how we have arrived at this snapshot in time. A student in Tehran taking extreme personal risk to record events happening in the streets will produce an image that will last forever in Iran’s history. Future generations will benefit from that commitment to citizen journalism.

However, we must also ensure we do not encourage 6 year old girls to spend a lot of time recording tornados. History will be full of images of tornados, and will be grateful for those who took the time to record those images. History will not be kind to those who encourage children and amateurs to take great risks. Citizen journalism will need to strike a balance.


John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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