Exercise – Citizen Journalism
Citizen journalism could sound like an oxymoron could it not? More than a twenty years ago there was far less contribution from members of the public to most news stories and what was contributed was often seen only on local news segments when members of the public would be ‘vox popped’ as to local elections, a new factory, job losses or rumblings of financial downturn.
Now citizen contribution has become actively encouraged through different platforms and by bigger news broadcasters and we can all #hastag# our contribution via twitter or instagram to submit our opinions and visual contribution from the ubiquitous iPhone or its android equivalent. So many of us now have a phone that doubles as a recording device!
But does it add something? Some would argue that what it adds is the voice of those who are keener to contribute, who are not necessarily “typical of a wide part of the audience“, [BBC News, Value of Citizen Journalism, (2008)], but just a “tiny vocal minority“. (BBC- Ibid)
When it comes to user generated content (UGC) in terms of documenting by photography or video there’s some additional issues to consider.
When journalists invite the public to comment it’s usually not only members of the public who provide all the verbalisations to camera for a news broadcast or the copy that will go to print or sit as text on a web page. But when user generated content in terms of photography is included in a report of a emerging news story sometimes there is no professional photojournalism.
Does it matter? And if it matters that phone captures are challenging the position of photojournalism, how much does it matter? Also, how does this shift sit in respect of the history of photography in news reporting?
The most obvious potential detractions from citizen journalism in photographic form, be it stills or moving images, is that the documenting may be largely biased, faked, poor quality and also threatening to the previous economic balance of documentary photographers and filmmakers. It can also go further as to shift our previously engrained senses of where we might get our ‘news’ from. “Phone cameras and internet video must threaten broadcasters who think TV viewers will move away from them (and on to the web), but the collective arena is a hive of creativity,” (M,Dineen, Guardian (2012), “It should add to what traditional documentary makers are doing and not take away.” (Ibid).
I took some interest in the New York Times’ choice to use Instagram images to document the snow fall of late January 2015 on its cover. A call was put out, [https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/01/26/us/26blizzard-callout.html?_r=0] for stills and video to be hash tagged as ‘for consideration’ and subsequently this was picked up by the World Photography Organisation. The webpage is now unavailable, but ironically enough, ‘citizen journalists’ including me, gave their opinion. And the same arguments apply. Do I have any credibility? Is my opinion measured or am I just an angry voice – whichever form of angry voice I may or may not have been?
The New York Times did however subsequently run some professionally documented images of the snowstorm that hit the East of the USA. A slide show of the Instagram submission to the New York Times can be found here. And whilst these individuals who submitted weren’t paid, they did capture the effect of the snow in their communities.
The real power of non-professionally shot images however can be seen when there is extreme breaking news. When a bomb has gone off or when a disaster has struck citizen journalism can add something to the mix of content that can be shown to those of us around the globe who may wonder what is happening, how its impacting those who are there – what the likely reality might be moving forward in terms of survivors. Though watching news unfold continually can have it’s drawbacks, can become a hypnotic distraction from life where we are at this time when information is constantly available, whether we find a mixed “hive of creativity” (Dineen, Ibid) in the presentation or not.
Abuses of power can be highlighted by citizen recorded documentary. One of the earliest seen uses of citizen documentation that highlighted an abuse of power I can think of is the video recording of Rodney King. In March 1991 King was videoed being seriously assaulted by George Holliday. The video, and stills taken from the video have been instrumental in the campaign for changes in policing in terms of baton use and also in the considerations of racial profiling. (Los Angeles Times, 2016).
More recently citizen journalism has brought the reality and gravity of the situation in Syria to a worldwide audience with photographs and footage which couldn’t necessarily be obtained by photojournalists and news crews, covertly uploaded using pseudonyms or sent out to news agencies and reporters. “Foreign journalists were barred from covering demonstrations and faced imprisonment or worse for trying to cover them,” writes Shih-Wei Chou, (Global Journalist, (2016) Citizen journalists report Syria conflict to world).
The subversion of government rules meant high risks for those who documented the protests but still many did. Some took up arms and some recorded events. “My role was holding camera and documenting all what [was] happening,” Malek Blacktoviche (pseudonym) says, (Global Journalist, (Ibid). In 2012 he was arrested by the Shabiha, the pro-Assad militia, and tortured and held at Aleppo Central Prison. “I couldn’t go to protests for ten days,” says Blacktoviche. “But after then, I felt powerful again.” (Ibid).
Telegraph writer Richard Spencer reported the detention of two prominent citizen journalists who ran Radio Fresh and were “well-known for their appearances in regional and western media” (Telegraph (2016), Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch seize citizen journalists) by Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al-Qaeda. A statement from the radio station said that, “When asked why they were doing this (Jabhat al – Nusra fighters), they kept repeating, ‘we don’t want the media’ over and over again.” Citizen journalism, where it has greater necessity than just adding to the mix of sources due to bans being effected by governments and other fighters has become as dangerous as professional war reporting.
The Witness Media Lab has gone further than collecting citizen journalism. “We studied videos that are not made with the intention of exposing or prosecuting abuse, but rather to share the abuse for others to witness and engage with as entertainment.” (Witness Media Lab [https://lab.witness.org/projects/transgender-violence/]). They have also been responsible for collating some of the citizen journalism that has shown extreme human rights abuses across the world. It’s here that a real purpose for these types of images, be they moving images as so many are or stills – which seems to be less common, is seen without question. These aren’t realities that should remain unknown and unchallenged. The Human Rights Channel, part of Witness Media Lab has some collections of specific years in review, through the medium of citizen journalism – here is 2014.
The vast amount of video information that has become available through citizen journalism could be seen as a challenge to professional photojournalism. Does anyone care to see the contemporary equivalent to Robert Capa’s beaches or Spanish Civil War, does it exist? Photojournalism has had changes in its position within photography as a whole, as an art form and journalism all the time. “At the start of the 20th century a photograph could only appear in a newspaper as an engraved copy,” Eamonn McCabe, Britain In Focus, BBC4) but thereafter the ‘golden age of photojournalism’ arrived as the 35mm Leica camera came to market as a much more portable camera and half-tone printing allowed a more cost effective form of producing greater picture content for the readers. I was told when I was very young that it was at one time possible to purchase newspapers that had blanks where the engravings would have been for a cheaper purchase price. Photojournalism wasn’t available for all if my memory is correct.
Documentary photographs are still seen at exhibition; prints and books are sold from photographers, be they Magnum, or selling stock images through Getty. We are living through a time of change in documentary photography and the advent of citizen journalism is perhaps something that might not have been predicted by the older relative who talked of the less costly ‘non-engraved’ newspapers with their blank image spaces that I, as a different generation, never got to see. But change continues, imbalances are redressed. Economically there are always people who feel that their incomes have shifted due to circumstances that they cannot take responsibility for as the industry changes. Yet citizen journalism doesn’t appear to be a trend. At its most serious it is, profound, and profoundly important. Its niche seems to be video and this appears to predict its continued existence.
BBC News, Value of Citizen Journalism, (2008), [http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2008/01/value_of_citizen_journalism.html – Last Accessed 23/02/2017]
Britain In Focus, (Episode 2) BBC4, 2017 [https://youtu.be/_rm8izqnbqQ – Last Accessed 23/02/2017] and [http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08hznbb/britain-in-focus-a-photographic-history-series-1-episode-2 – Last Accessed 23/02/2017]
Dineen, M, (2012) The Rise of Citizen Journalism, Guardian, [https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/jun/11/rise-of-citizen-journalism – Last Accessed 23/02/2017]
Global Journalist, (2016) Citizen journalists report Syria conflict to world, [http://globaljournalist.org/2016/02/citizen-journalists-report-syria-conflict-to-world/ – Last Accessed – 23/02/2016]
Los Angeles Times (2016), How the Rodney King beating ‘banished’ the baton from the LAPD [http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-rodney-king-baton-20160303-story.html – Last Accessed 23/02/2017]
The Telegraph, (2016), Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch seize citizen journalists, [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12091812/Al-Qaedas-Syrian-branch-seize-citizen-journalists.html – Last Accessed 23/02/2017]
Witness Media Lab [https://lab.witness.org/projects/transgender-violence/ – Last Accessed – 23/02/2017] and Human Rights Channel (as part of the Witness Media Lab) [https://https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtRcFsiWBLn2Oj95JmAGfgw – Last Accessed 23/02/2017] and [https://youtu.be/rn3E1t8Uvrk – Last Accessed 23/02/2017]