Citizen Journalists and Modern Chronicles of Disaster

Jeff Jarvis, author, journalist, and new media visionary provided his thoughts on citizen journalism during a CNN interview (13 March 2011) following the Japan tsunami disaster.  One of the most interesting ideas concerned the immediacy and presence of citizens able to record events, and distribute recorded events in near real time.  Jarvis expressed the idea that we cannot wait for traditional journalists to arrive at the scene of an event, and with new devices such as cell phone cameras and the Internet any citizen can provide raw materials which journalists may then provide deeper context.

Citizen Journalism 2011Journalists as News Aggregators

Tradition news media is still working to fully understand the deal with the idea of citizen journalism, and how to use the global pool of news recorders to not only their benefit, but also the benefit of viewers and readers.  Jarvis further developed the idea of media becoming an aggregator of news recorded by amateur sources around the world.  Whether it is through a CNN iReport, KTLA “My Capture/Your KTLA,” or a Fox news “U-Report,” traditional media has recognized the power of citizens, and is aggressively recruiting citizen sources to supplement their own news sources.

As Jarvis mentioned, there is no way traditional media companies can provide adequate on-the-scene journalists to cover all aspects of a story or event.  Thus if citizens are able to provide more raw materials, and the traditional media company can collate or aggregate those materials, while adding context or piecing individual pieces of a story together to complete a larger story.  This is particularly important in rapidly developing situations, such as the Japan Tsunami, a California wildfire, or other crisis.

NOTE:  Nearly every news outlet supporting citizen journalism input also includes a disclaimer recommending no person put themselves into “harm’s way” to provide video or photo records of an event.

Journalism Becomes a Source of “What We Don’t Know”

As citizen journalism continues to supplement traditional media, Jarvis continued discussing the idea of news changing from a an idea of presenting “what we do know” about an event or story, to identifying “what we don’t know.”  That is a difficult idea to fully comprehend.  However when we are able to consider the immediacy of news sources, it is very exciting.

For example, as I sit in Montreal writing a story about the earthquake in Sendai, I know that many people in Japan still have access to the Internet, have cameras, and are constantly monitoring social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter.  There is a very good chance if I desire information on a specific city, or recovery event occurring within a city, there will be somebody in that location who can provide the information or photos needed to complete my story.  I may never meet that source, and may only be able to send an email message in thanks (in addition to citing their contribution in the story), but the source (or sources) is now available to me within minutes from virtually anywhere in the world.

In an event as large as the Sendai tsunami, even an outlet such as CNN with two or three on-the-scene reporters can only cover a small fraction of the entire magnitude of the incident.  To get the full picture, having dozens or hundreds of contributing citizen journalists will not only help interested viewers around the world gain access to a more complete picture of the event, but also when necessary provide an unfiltered view of an event.

YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Other Neutral Archives

The real value of video, photo, and textual records of an event may be in the raw form it is recorded.  While we expect a news media source, whether a newspaper, magazine, or television news program to provide a factual report on an event, it is not a guarantee.  Any person who has traveled around the world, watching news programs sourced in many different countries, it is very clear each news source has a slightly different presentation of the same event or story.

If you watch CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, CCTV (China), NHK (Japan), or France 2, or Fox News, you will definitely get 7 different representations of the same story.  In this case citizens loading their raw videos or photos to a neutral archive will provide a view into an event without the fear of government spin or propaganda, nor newscasters adding their own editorial or politically motivated analysis.

The Future of News

While not promoting the idea of encouraging the average citizen to become a war correspondent, being equipped with a recording device does give each citizen the ability to record a snapshot of time and event.  Whether it is providing supplemental materials to a news outlet, or providing real-time information to emergency service personnel, citizens recording events are here to stay.  At some point governments and others attempting to “spin” facts in their interest or favor will lose their influence due to the ability to archive raw recordings of events within the global Internet “cloud.”

After spending a morning looking through the raw tsunami and earthquake video uploaded to YouTube, it is clear traditional news media and journalists could never provide the level of un-edited footage available through the Internet.  We will still watch CNN (and other stations) to learn more of the big picture, but it is clear the future will have that big picture produced through the efforts of individual citizens, at a level much higher than we have been exposed to in the past.

A Tsunami of Global Disaster Communications through Citizen Journalism

The news started hitting California early Saturday morning with an SMS alarm on my mobile phone – a major earthquake struck Chile, and there was a potential of tsunami activity in California and Hawaii (as well as the rest of the Pacific). First Citizen Journalism Transforming Mediastop – CNN. The news source was right on the story, with real time information flowing into the newsroom from, not on-scene journalists, but through Twitter and Facebook updates.

Another SMS message hits the phone letting me know there was a Twitter list at #hitsunami, and the discussion would include all the most current news related to tsunami preparations in Hawaii. Also gave a link to a web page that was broadcasting a live feed from KHON in Honolulu until the station integrated their feed on the KHON home page.

Back to CNN, cell phone videos began pouring in from Santiago and Concepcion. CNN began broadcasting directly from Chile – not from a CNN journalist, but from a Chilean citizen streaming video through a Skype connection. KHON also began streaming video and audio from a private citizen through BJPENN.COM in Hilo, as KHON also did not have a real time video feed of their own, or a journalist on site that could provide adequate real time information from the city.

Then, the same stream from BJPENN.COM in Hilo showed up on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

Citizen Journalism is here to Stay

News media is changing forever. Citizens now have the technology, and savvy, to provide the world with real time, unedited news feeds 24×7, 365 days a year, and from nearly any single location on the planet. Neither mainstream news media outlets nor governments can fully control the presentation of events occurring around the world. With nearly every mobile phone equipped with a camera or video device, and the ability to send images through both the mobile networks and Internet, reality can once again be reality.

Government actions, law enforcement actions, and individual actions are now more likely to be recorded than not – ensuring that at a raw level, fact will become available to the world without government or media corruption of the source.

While the mainstream news media may still add “expert” commentary and attempt to interpret events, those events can no longer be controlled or hidden from the global community. There are exceptions, such as embedding journalists within military operations. The government will still control what the public views or learns from those journalists, and propaganda will still be part of our lives. Mainstream media will still try to interpret events in a manner supporting their political views (if in doubt, watch the US stations Fox, MSNBC, CNN, and BBC America for a variety of interpretations of a single event).

But that line of deception, or use of propaganda, becomes thinner every day as the diffusion of recording devices and communications continues to become available to nearly every person on the planet.

“We are getting Twitter reports and photos from the Big Island…”

With residents of the Big Island scattered along the shores of Hawaii, and nearly 100% of them with a mobile communications device, people on the island were kept up to date by the second of tsunami activity hitting the island. Emergency services broadcast information upon receipt of updates, and if there was ever a “dry run” for emergency communications, the people of Hawaii showed the world how it should be done.

As Governor Lingle stated in a pre-event news conference (broadcast to KHON studios via Skype), “the eyes of the world are now on Hawaii.” Gov. Lingle, and the people of Hawaii should be proud of the way they set a new standard for integrating citizen journalism, broadcast journalism, and emergency services into a single, integrated community.

CNN, Fox, and MSNBC had one theme in common throughout the rapidly unfolding Chile earthquake events, and preparations for a tsunami event around the Pacific – “send us your images, reports, and video, but do not put yourself in danger.”

Mainstream media gets it. They may not like it much, but they get it. iReports, real-time Skype and Twitter reports, SMS messages, and mobile imaging have given us the potential of having around 4 billion citizen journalists available to produce news content. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC are more than welcome to collate and interpret those events, but now we have a choice of making our own interpretations, listening to the mainstream media’s interpretations, or listening to the government’s interpretation of local or global events.

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