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Inconvenient truths about Citizen journalists

20 Jun

Are you rooting for mainstream journalism or the grassroots variety?

How about both? One has the training. The other has the temperament. One has the credibility. The other has access. Mainstream journalism and citizen journalism are shaking hands, and the consequences may be very interesting for the media we consume and our role as potential collaborators.

We typically think of citizen journalists as these accidental reporters –those who in the face of a catastrophic event, grab a cell-phone, and capture a story that would have otherwise never been recorded. We recall the first heartbreaking reports of the 2004 tsunami captured by citizens in Sri Lanka. Commuters, not trained reporters, provided the first grainy videos when terrorist bombed subways and buses in London in 2005. Likewise, the first images of the dramatic ‘splash landing’ of an U.S Airways flight into the Hudson river in Manhattan, New York, were captured by a citizen journalist.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of a new breed of reporters, an ‘accidental profession’ that has begun to turn more professional (‘Pro’) than amateur (‘Am’).

Some ex-journalists and entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in this space and have begun to create business models, albeit non-profit businesses. One of them, The Uptake (www.theuptake.org),  is a citizen ‘fueled’ news organization. Chuck Olsen, co-founder of The Uptake calls it ‘committing an act of journalism.’ Meaning, going out there and finding the story, not reacting to it.

Mohammed Nabbous, killed in Benghazi, Libya in March 2011, was one of the bravest citizen journos of our time, killed while uploading a story. Check out a video of these last moments at http://bit.ly/LMD0811 In the last part of this video you can sense he is terribly impatient, waiting as a large file uploads from his camera.

“Where is the media?” he asks, rhetorically, with gunfire just outside his door.  It does not strike him that he was “The Media’ –an Am behaving like, and filling the void of, a Pro.

Today many mainstream news organizations have embedded elements of citizen journalism, often training their reporters to use the tools that the Ams take for granted. BBC, for instance is training its reporters to use iPhone apps to file stories. This month, The New York Times opened up a story for citizen participation in making sense of a boatload of email records (24,199) from Sarah Palin. “We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy e-mails, people and events that we may want to highlight.

You could find a broader discussion of this evolving Pro-Am model in an upcoming article.

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