From Abraham Zapruder to Diamond Reynolds – Cameras in public life sensitize us

It’s just three months since Facebook Live became a feature that anyone could use. But it took another accidental ‘reporter’ named Diamond Reynolds to put it to use in a way no one ever envisaged.

This came some 52 years after another accidental reporter named Abraham Zapruder captured sniper bullets hitting President John. F. Kennedy in Dallas.

That was a time when cameras were scarce, and there was no such thing as a live citizen journalist broadcast. Now cameras (and all manner of recording devices) are so ubiquitous, we’ve almost come to expect to see the raw footage or listen to soundtracks of terrible events. Technology has given us a way to piece together events. The hope is that events seen through multiple camera angles might help us NOT rush to judgement.

Facebook Live allows 90 minutes of video. Zapruder took just 26.6 seconds of footage.

Citizens’ voices matter

A few years ago I conducted a series of webinar-style workshops for the U.S. State Department, for content creators, educators, marketers and those in traditional and new media. The workshops were called  “Passport to Digital Citizenship.”

I was convinced that citizen’s voices would be valuable, and –despite technological barriers and people who would try to keep them quiet– they could be heard.

So today, as my book is about to launch, I am thrilled to see this report by CNN on the importance of citizen-driven media.

Journalism has been forever changed — I’d argue for the better — thanks to the fact that people can interact with media organizations and share their opinions, personal stories, and photos and videos of news as it happens. This year’s nominated iReports are prime examples of how participatory storytelling can positively affect the way we cover and understand the news. 

(“36 stories that prove citizen journalism matters.” By Katie Hawkins-Gaar, CNN | Wed April 3, 2013 )

When we talk of  ‘participatory journalism’ we mean that ‘CitJos’ work alongside traditional media. They are not here as a replacement model, but to complement the changing media industry. Of the 100,000 citizen stories submitted to in 2012, they used 10,789 –having vetted them first.

I just interviewed the creator of a leading citizen journalist outfit in South Asia, and he stressed the importance of community guidelines, and careful design.

Citizen journalism, and the power of citizen voices is a big section in my book, Chat Republic.

The media are changing. And you?

In 1999 (before we many of us began thinking deeply about the role of the Internet on the media as we know it), USAID foresaw a trend, or rather a need for citizens to be able to “make informed decisions and counter state-controlled media.”

They talked of nurturing ‘alternative media,’ which at that time made many people uncomfortable. Mainstream media journalists, especially, thought that this would be lead to erosion in standards.

USAID may have never dreamt that something called social media would sow up and deliver this ‘alternative’ into our laps. Later, in 2005, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which tracks newspaper reading habits, recorded a curious shift. They observed that people were turning away from traditional news outlets, particularly those “with their decorous, just-the-facts aspirations to objectivity.” And what were they gravitating toward? They were turning toward “noisier hybrid formats that aggressively fuse news with opinion or entertainment, or both.”

News infused with opinion? That sounded like heresy!

Not anymore! Dozens of news organizations have begun using a combination of social networking, citizen journalism and traditional reporting to do just that.

I mentioned Internews. It may not be ‘noisy,’ but it is definitely a hybrid format. Internews is an international ‘media development organization’ that empowers local media worldwide. Meaning it not only becomes a distribution channel for global voices, but it gives people the tools to connect, and thereby be heard.

A similar organization, Global Voices, is a nonprofit foundation comprising an international team of volunteer authors, and others who are active in the blogosphere. In fact, one of its divisions, Lingua plays a sort of the amplifier role. Lingua, it says, “amplifies Global Voices stories in languages other than English with the help of volunteer translators.” They translate content into more than 15 languages.

Pew’s recent State of The News Media Report talks of how media consumption in a world of increasing mobile devices  forces news companies to follow some messy rules (of device makers, for instance) to deliver their content. The news ecology is getting uneven, it says.

This is where hybrid, alternative media has taken root. Let’s get used to it!

A longer version of this is published in LMD magazine.

Wikipedia appears to beat media in Chilean miner rescue

By chance I checked Wikipedia on the Chilean  miner rescue operation underway now (9.15 PM Pacific), and was pleasantly surprised to see two things going on:

The first was that Wikipedians are updating the site faster that Google results of news of the rescue operation.

San Jose Mercury News, Yahoo and others come up on search for ‘miner rescue’ with news

that one miner has been rescued.

Wikipedians noted that there have been two miners brought to the surface.

It took about another 10 minutes for the rest of the media reports to show up with this detail.

Meanwhile CBS News is streaming video via Ustream!

The second curious phenomenon will probably be discussed at length in the weeks after this. In what is clearly a sign of the times, where everyone is now a reporter,  the video from the mine captures at least two of the trapped miners photographing (or videoing maybe?) the event that they are part of!

Who’s watching what here? Who’s updating whom here? This is breaking news, and the subjects are reporting the story!

Civic journalism is coming. Get over it!

This story gives a new meaning to the term muck raking.

I like the idea of citizen journalism, and have written a lot about it in the past. I even try to practice it a bit, because there are some stories the media will never get to.

Civic journalism is even more interesting, basically community-funded journalism.

So it was interesting to see how the Director of have to defend one such project. The site lets people submit ideas for stories and have media companies bid on them –basically fund the reporter. Lindsey Hoshaw, had suggested she could report on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large amount of garbage that supposedly twice the size of Texas, floating around in the Pacific Ocean.

One reader sniped about the fact that someone was being paid for this, and Cohn had to come back and defend the fact that Hoshaw was being funded.

“The money we are raising is just for travel. That is a real and high expense for this story (it is in the middle of the ocean) – so that is where ALL the money is going. The reporter here isn’t going to pocket it.”

As Cohn rightly observed, such mean-spirited attacks serve no one.

But beyond this, the real issue is the public perception of -indeed, public appetite for —  what big media ought to be covering. After seeing the OJ-like dragging on of the Michael Jackson story, my cynical side tells me that people need to wallow in this stuff. But I tend to be more of an optimist. I’ve met journalists who go for the bigger things.

I think we are at a moment where people will support stories not connected to celebrity and partisan politics. Is it better to spend $6k on a story about garbage than a story on a goofy governor? Is it worth our time, their airtime and all those satellite trucks to chase after Jon and Kate? Let’s do a survey on this.  I am willing to bet we’ll see a lot more thumbs up.

People will consume what is served up (hence the formulaic stories on ‘Dirty restaurants,’  and ‘scams on Craigs List’) but they are also tuning out, Tivoing past, and canceling their subscriptions for a good reason.

Civic journalism will take time, but it is coming. We better get used to it.

The risk of blogging will only increase

Journalists-turned-bloggers know the risks involved, because they understand the laws of libel and defamation. But there is a wide range of risks involved when it comes to political blogs –from simply getting beaten up, to being on a black list, to a frivolous lawsuit.

I came across two this week — a week that has seen live blogging from the congressional hearings of Bernie Madoff–  that speaks to this risky business.

Last year, we saw a spate of attacks on bloggers aross the world. Iran, China, and whenever one group finds itself under the scrutiny of bloggers. What’s next? Lawsuits filed against Twitter users? Going after people filing video iReports?

Those who cannot easily threaten and muzzle traditional media suddenly find it much easier to bully someone –usually it is an individual, not a syndicated blog — engaged in social media . The laws will have to adapt fast as the lines between old and new media blur.

Social media’s role in crisis, a learning curve

Given that social media are always on, how should you exploit it for a breaking event?

If you’re in an incident command center, then you have powerful channel –more ears to the ground, more lenses, more raw “intelligence.”

If you’re a news organization, you have a potentially dangerous weapon. Meaning, you could easily abuse it and have hell to pay. CNN’s iReporters are citizen journalists, rated by visitors and viewers to the iReport site. How? “It’s all in the math,” they say. The rating system assigns  Superstar status to those with more reports.

I’ve heard a lot recently about how social media played a important part in Mumbai attacks, in communicating and updating ongoing messages of distress, mainstream reporting and even some forms of citizen journalism. Often, we could not believe what we were seeing and reading about.

But we cheerleaders of new media tools need to be careful and also admit to the potential downsides of such raw, real-time communication.

On that note, it is heartening to see that the BBC is also admitting to some of the risks it should not have taken, such as being careless about fact checking: “simply monitoring, selecting and passing on the information we are getting as quickly as we can.” In other words, just because we do have access to more eyes and years and thumb typers, doesn’t mean we should compromise on what the media does best –act as a filter, and put things in context.


1. Adaptation: The use of the microblogging format as a news medium is still a work in progress. As someone commenting on this story said, the Beeb should adapt its journalism to the new tools “instead of dropping Twitter with burnt fingers.”

If we look back at how television blundered and blundered when covering major events in its early days, (look how they still do even now!) social media channels like Twitter have a long ways to go.

2. Naivete. Just because technology is used ro do bad things doesn’t mean it should be off limits. There’s anxiety that Google Earth is dangerous because one of the Mumbai terrorists used it in the plot. As one person commented, “Did they use any sort of shoes or boots? What about rope? Let’s ban everything….” !

3. Collaboration. Twitter and Flickr played a big part in providing rich information. But it did not prove that new media was better than old media. As Gaurav Mishra notes, “Twitter, and new media and mainstream media complemented each other in covering this story.”