'Citizen journalism' is full of incorrect assumptions

The line between professional and amateur has blurred as the era of the ‘Web 2.0’has enabled widespread access to the tools to produce and disseminate accounts of current events.

The ubiquity of cameraphones, in particular, has led to an enormous increase in the volume of material produced by members of the public – an outpouring that news organisations have rapidly learned to incorporate into their coverage.

But the blanket term frequently used to describe these changes, ‘citizen journalism”, is loaded with incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the people who use these tools.

The term ‘citizen’frames the producers of the image as political participants, implying political motivations in what is often actually an apolitical act of using social media tools to communicate with acquaintances.

The term ‘journalist”, meanwhile, implies that the material was gathered or produced with the intention of reporting news.

In fact, ‘citizen journalists’often have neither political nor journalistic intentions.

Dr Dave Otway won second place in Press Gazette’s 2006 Citizen Journalism Awards.

An avid amateur photographer, Otway took his prize-winning aerial shots of the Buncefield fuel depot in Hemel Hempstead burning after a fuel tank exploded there. Dr Otway had been on an early morning Ryanair flight which flew directly over the conflagration on 11 December 2005 and had taken several pictures.

Immediately after arriving to work that morning, Otway uploaded five of the pictures he had taken to the photo-sharing web site Flickr. His intention, he said in an interview, was to share the images with others, not to report a breaking news story.

Watershed

But a short time later, Otway was contacted by BBC News’s Steven Dowling, who requested permission to use the images.

After granting permission to the BBC, Otway thought to send the photos to CNN, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times and within minutes a picture editor at the Telegraph called to request permission to use the image. Otway’s image was featured on page 4 of the next day’s edition, in which it was incorporated directly into the professional coverage of the Buncefield explosion.

Despite being labelled a prize-winning citizen journalist, Otway was clear in the interview that he does not consider himself a (citizen) journalist. Otway says he had no feeling that he was committing an act of journalism in the process. He had taken several other pictures that morning, none of them designed to report news. Otway had been commuting weekly between England and Cork for work, and it was only because of a family gathering that weekend he happened to be carrying his quality digital camera with him on this particular flight.

The 7 July bombings are often described as a watershed for the widespread awareness of the changing relationship between news organisations and their readers. Much of the initial reporting relied on witness’s imagery and accounts to report the unfolding story. In a BBC 3 documentary about ‘citizen journalists’that aired in November 2005, many of the people whose images were widely used in the news coverage of 7/7 made clear their lack of journalistic motivation.

A few said they had hoped to correct the early, incorrect reports which referred to a ‘power surge’on the Underground, but most recalled more banal motivations.

Adam Stacey took one of the iconic images of the tunnel evacuations near Aldgate station using his mobile phone. He uploaded the picture onto the mobile blogging site MoBlog:UK, where it became the first picture of the bombings’ aftermath that was discovered online.

Interviewed for the BBC film, Stacey was asked whether or not he considered himself a citizen journalist. If he had been a journalist, Stacey replied, he would have gone toward the cars caught in the blast instead of joining the evacuation.

Many who recorded the images from the underground tunnels on

7 July say they had taken the pictures simply to document their presence at this strange event and that they had no idea that what they had photographed was their participation in the aftermath of an orchestrated terrorist attack.

Surveillance

Another ‘citizen journalist’interviewed for the BBC documentary, Matt Dann, recalled another reason for taking the pictures of his experience in the underground on July 7. Dann had recently been reprimanded for being late to work and wanted to secure proof as to why he would again arrive to work late that morning.

News organisations have learned quickly to harness the new form of social surveillance that has emerged because of the widespread diffusion of cameraphones and inexpensive online publishing tools.

‘Citizen journalism’as the term has come to be used by journalists, is similar to the way that the public has traditionally tended to interact with the media: making eyewitness reports to journalists entrusted to compile and construct the complete story through a scattering of eyewitness contributions in addition to official reports.

But this form of participation is only the most basic form of interaction that is becoming possible in the new world of interactive media.

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