Citizen Journalism as a Catalyst for Transforming Media

Another incident on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) hits YouTube, and the world is once again asking the question if BART Police are using too much force, the police acted appropriately, or if BART passengers simply recorded a snapshot in time that could be interpreted at a later date. In the past, to find out what happened during an incident such as the most recent BART scuffle, you would be dependent on a newspaper’s beat journalist to hang around a police station. He’d get a copy of the official police report, perhaps talk with one of his friends on the force, and transcribe what he gathered.

Now news and media are real time. You can get Twitter tweets and video feeds from mobile phones, laptop computers, and reporters on the scene with CNN (or other international news sources). In many cases even established news outlets are starting to heavily rely on “stringers,” or freelancers to provide on-scene raw video for later interpretation by news readers. Nearly every news outlet today asks for viewers to send their “i-Reports” and videos to supplement news reports, and to reduce the amount of time from incident to broadcast.

A very different world from the days of Walter Cronkite, when the evening news would be a well-edited account from a distant reporter, formatted for the time allotted by network news, and face news competition by only a couple other networks (in the United States that would include CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS).

The Biased Media

Media outlets have changed as well, moving from being a 5WH (who, why, what, when, where, how) style of reporting to networks such as Fox, openly stating they present a “conservative” point of view (Huckabee, Hannity, Beck, etc). This means in many cases viewers who prefer a certain point of view will be presented with interpretation of news events which support their beliefs.

It is also becoming more difficult to determine whether a news story is actually a press release or advertisement, rather than hard news. Even when a government organization or company is interviewed following some event or incident, the person interviewed is generally a professional public relations specialist, who may not find presentation of fact as a desired outcome of the interview.

Citizen Journalism Tends to be Pure

In most cases, when a freelancer or citizen records an event, they provide that record of the even in its raw, or pure state. If you see a home video of a tornado on CNN, then most likely the person providing that video is not providing commentary, only the video. When we were receiving near real-time cell phone video from Tehran during the recent violence following elections, most of the video received came out as quickly as possible, and was then processed in its raw form through venues such as YouTube.

All we really ask from the citizen journalist, to give their story or record of an event credibility, is:

  • An unedited record or account of the event
  • A reference of the event recording’s origin
  • A factual context of the event (who, when, where)

We do not always need a deep analysis of an event by a reporter or analyst who’s motivation may be based on how sensational they can make the event, which political or religious ideology they should promote when presenting an event, or their own personal opinion. The main thing we need is context, and enough information to allow us to respond to the news if needed (such as during an emergency or other condition).

Media Changes

David Sasaki, in a recent PBS IdeaLab article walked through the changes in media over the past 550 years. Starting with transcribing bibles for the Catholic Church and aristocracy, and walking through the social changes driven by innovations such as the Gutenberg press, radio, television, and newspapers, Sasaki presents a very compelling argument for embracing change. Whether it be eliminating unnecessary reporters and editors, or better understanding the impact of social media and “publics” created through a global-connected community, we need to understand the dynamics of media change to develop a vision of how news media and information transfer may evolve.

In the 1960s you would watch even local news stations for the “Evening News,” and you would get a solid 30 minutes of reporting on national, international, and local news. Today, if you watch news programs such as CNN’s Headline news, you might get 3 or 4 minutes of hard news, and then 25 minutes of human interest stories filling out the rest of a segment.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to interpret news from marketing, fact from advertising and public relations, or gaining access to raw news.

Chaos Theory and Media

Chaos Theory states that any system is vulnerable to changing conditions either within or encroaching on the system. If the current or historical media systems are an example, we can see innovation or technologies (such as the Gutenberg press, Internet, paper, radio) as a significant disruptor to the media “system.”

The Internet is currently a very disruptive element to traditional media, as it provides a platform for applications such as YouTube, Twitter, instant messaging, and other utilities to provide either real-time, or near real-time one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many communications. On a global scale.

The other disruptor is the fact young people have internet-enabled technologies fully diffused into their education and life, allowing the new “Generation Z” visibility into new communication concepts that prior generations may not yet comprehend, or may never comprehend. What will come out of this diffusion of knowledge into Gen Z-ers? Impossible to know, but it will no doubt potentially be as huge an event as the Gutenberg press was to the world of the 1400s.

A generation where the people are the news, create the news, consume the news, and provide the news. There will be casualties as we re-organize media outlets which no longer adequately support the 21st century, but the result will be really, really exciting.

Gen-Z youth are not mentally restrained by the technical limitations and legacy of existing broadcast and print media. With their diffused knowledge and operation of existing and emerging technologies, they have a “clean slate” to develop new models of media, news, social interaction, and global presence. As “baby boomers,” we need to continue creating the tools our fledgling Generation Z needs to envision ways to exploit our technology, and further build our global presence and instant access to that news and information they need to live in a wired world.

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.

One Response to Citizen Journalism as a Catalyst for Transforming Media

  1. Steven R - Honolulu says:

    John, thanks for the blog. I’ve been thinking about the word “media” and transparency. “Media” comes from the latin medius, or middle. Referenced to journalism, it is the vehicle or conduit for events, ideas, etc. to be transmitted and distributed and this is where issues of transparency come in. As you say, citizen journalism, coming in a raw or pure form is less mediated and probably more transparent.

    It occurs to me, human industry being what it is, that any endeavor, such as journalism, will be subject to ever increasing complexity and well, let’s say modulation; if for no other reason than for increasing the value of the product as well as the practitioners’ self-worth. While the printing press may have been technically more complex than a scribe, the scribe was able to illuminate or enhance the text whereas printed versions were virtual facsimiles and in that way simpler and more transparent. With the added layer of commercial economic models, content is skewed to serve the revenue source, advertising. 20th century media, broadcast or print, was structured to facilitate advertising, dictating the amount of time/space alloted to stories as well as the tone, timbre, and editorial slant. This effect on transparency is particularly pernicious because the motivation is entirely tangential to the content i.e. a story modulated in a way that will best help the sale of corn flakes.

    New journalism will acquire sponsors, be it the church, GM, or just a multitude of online “friends”. Citizen or professional journalists are pipers and someone will be paying for the tune.

    So once again we are in an era where a new technology is disrupting the private interests that have attached themselves to an industry over time. Actually the technology is affecting nearly all industries across the board similarly and the old value systems, alliances, and methodologies that are dead weights are being sheared off because they are inefficient and ineffective.

    But it’s a two edged sword because these accretions that form around institutions are also what define the character of a culture, in fact it could be said that they are culture itself. So while we marvel at our new found transparency, it is inevitable that we will “spice to taste”, we will form cohorts and complex psychological relationships around the structures, narratives and myths will build new complexes around the reformed institutions.

    Journalism, being a method in which we self inform as a society, presents a peculiar double standard in that there is an inherent conflict between our need to perceive reality and the process of interpreting it into a cultural narrative. Purity, or clarity of perception, is not necessarily the same as truth as defined by cultural resonance. Journalism is not a science, nor is it a fanciful entertainment. Journalism/media is by definition somewhere in the middle.

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