If you’ve got a phone, you can cover the news. But is it news because you cover it?

The recent surge in citizen photojournalism has benefits in coverage, but professionals are worried about the content

By Stuart Jones

People gather by the dozens, carrying homemade signs and chanting clever slogans in New York City to catch the attention of the public. In just a minute, a passerby pulls out her smart phone, takes a picture of the protesters and uploads it to Facebook. The Occupy Wall Street movement just went public.

This is just one example of the emergence of citizen journalism. The definition is interpreted in different ways, but the concept is that these are amateur journalists, not on assignment, that bring information of news to the Internet via social media where it can catch the eye of news organizations.

The process for how news is broken and distributed is completely different now in the age of the Internet and powerful mobile devices.

“It is very rare for a professional journalist to be the first on the scene anymore,” Stanley Leary, freelance photographer in Atlanta, said.

Leary, a freelance photographer through Black Star agency, previously worked for The Hickory (N.C.) Daily News and his photos have been published in magazines around the world.

“Sometimes professionals are there because a camera phone was there and a citizen journalist alerted the news station and then the news team is sent. Or we hear about a story because someone in our newsroom sees it on Facebook and says we should send our photographer there.”

The London bombings in 2005 were an example of citizen journalism coverage of breaking news. Four bombs went off over the period of an hour. Initially news organizations believed it to be a power-surge. Londoners went to the web for their breaking news.

“Within six hours we received more than 1,000 photographs, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages, and 20,000 e-mails,” Richard Sambrook, director of Global News for the Corporation, said in Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen’s article Journalism, public service and BBC News Online. “People were participating in our coverage in a way we had never seen before. By the next day, our main evening TV newscast began with a package entirely edited from video sent in by our viewers.” Read about the complete coverage on BBC’s site http://bbc.in/r9qoMq.

Citizen journalists emerge because they have been given an edge

Citizen journalists have been a part of the media since the heyday of the popular press when editorials, advice and opinion columns made space for the public to be heard. The role of citizen journalist has recently gained more attention due to multiple factors.

“The technology has leveled the playing field,” Leary said. “When we think about citizen journalists, they’re not using less technology; they’re using the same technology you see on the evening news with the professionals reporting. The access to be able to be a journalist has now changed.”

Armed with technology, the other weapon in the belt of a citizen journalist is access. They are already out where the news is. Because of this access sometimes the quality of the image is not of importance Leary said.

“It’s that the image exists and that there was access to that moment. If someone had their cell phone camera on when the first plane hit the Twin Towers, that would be famous worldwide, no matter how bad it was because I don’t think we have any footage of the first plane hitting and it’s of interest.”

Technology’s advancement and ease of use allow a citizen to take a picture or video on a phone and upload it to any news organization and even have potential to make the front page in minutes. Citizen journalists can spot news when it happens.

A complete reporting tool right in your pocket

The iPhone 4s has more megapixels than the first full size digital camera on the market. The standard camera built into smart phones is now at an unprecedented eight megapixels, sometimes even 12. These are achievements in the realm of technology compared to the first mainstream camera phones which only had a single megapixel resolution for the camera.

“You think to 15 years ago, a fraction of the people walking around had a camera on them. Now everybody does. If you have a phone, you have a camera,” said Rick Loomis, photographer for The LA Times. Loomis has worked at The LA Times for 17 years and has also won a Pulitzer Prize for his photography.

Putting phones that can capture high-quality images or video in the pockets of the public has changed the way people think about what they see.

A fan takes a picture of lead singer Bear Rinehart on their Blackberry at a Needtobreathe concert in Asheville, N.C. Photo by Stuart Jones.

“Everyone is thinking right away about pulling out their phone and shooting their picture,” Randy Piland, photojournalism professor at Elon University said. “Go to a speaker and you’ll see a lot of people holding up their cameras. They do it with concerts and celebrities too. The first thing a lot of people will do is pull out their smart phone and start snapping pictures.”

With this new concept of being able to document what is happening right now and turn around the information quickly has Dave LaBelle, a photojournalism professor at Kent State University and past photographer for The LA Times, concerned.

“There is such an emphasis on the carrier that there is little emphasis on what is being carried,” LaBelle said. “Everything is focused on the technology, not storytelling. The emphasis is so great on the technology that it is really dwarfing the content.”

Is expediency a prominent goal over accuracy?

“With the growth of Facebook and similar social media, everyone wants to get the word out the fastest because they want their personal story told or the story of what they see unfolding in front of them to be told,” said Loomis.

The fear is that by putting too much emphasis on getting information out to the public quickly, that the content of the story is sacrificed.

LaBelle said the public now has to verify news across multiple sources because value is not placed on the accuracy of the content.

“We’ve lost the deep reporting, because nobody can afford it,” LaBelle explained. “It’s about ‘me first.’ Watch television news and they’ll say, ‘We were there first on the scene.’ They don’t go out and say, ‘We had the deepest story’ but instead, ‘We were first.’ There’s such a need to be first in our world right now that sometimes first people have to go, ‘Whoops I was a little too hasty on that.’”

The works submitted become a question of legitimacy

In this era of powerful technology where editing images is quick and simple, there is also the question of whether or not an image has been fabricated or altered. “Because of the ease of uploading pictures and content to the Internet, people aren’t sure if it’s accurate or honest because so many things aren’t that are submitted,” Piland said.

There was recent question of legitimacy of a photograph taken by Anis Mili, a photographer for Reuters, on 24 September 2011.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Anis Mili

The picture (above) was scrutinized on multiple levels. One point being that the rocket propelled grenade launcher would have knocked this rebel fighter on crutches over. Another being that the shadows of the fighter do not match the man holding the rpg. Other viewers were concerned with how the explosion appeared in this image.

Despite all the controversy and the reputation of Mili as a professional and a consistent contributor to Reuters, even the professional community considered his image a fake.

Reuters verified that this image was taken by Mili and that it was completely unmodified by any post-production software like Photoshop.

Damon Winter, photojournalist of The New York Times doesn’t think that citizen journalism is an imposing force however he still believes that “the responsibility of filtering and verifying content falls on the photo editor.”

“As professionals, the thing we are really concerned about is whether or not there’s credibility in the stuff that’s being submitted,” Piland commented. “If you’re not trained in journalism or as a photojournalist, you would possibly bend the guidelines we follow in ethics of photography and news coverage. We’re trained to go out and capture the news in an accurate, honest depiction without orchestrating or setting up or faking the situation.”

Though training can be the difference between professional journalists and citizen journalists, LaBelle still believes there are basic principles that apply for both.

“To me it’s just a balance. There has to be that balance,” said LaBelle. “You have to continue looking at, ‘How do I disseminate that information.’ That’s important because you can’t lose that and you have to keep up with that. But you have to keep what’s most important and that is the content that is the story, that is the humane part. That part has to come first and just those basic journalism skills have got to be there first.”

The upside to the citizen journalist

Since citizens are not held to the standards of journalists, they are not limited by ethics and rules. If a citizen shows up early to a red carpet premier, they will be front row to snap a picture on their smart phone when the celebrity walks by.

However the professional was barricaded behind all the fans because that is where the media section is. The professional comes up with a less of an opportunity than the citizen journalist because of their lack of title and affiliation.

Citizen journalists can also “recreate new visions of what news might be in a world divorced from mainstream news values” said Nikki Usher in her article Professional Journalists, Hands Off! Civic Journalism as Civic Responsibility.

“The lead-up to the Iraq war, when the press failed to adequately challenge White House positions, is a shining example of access journalism and journalistic failure,” Usher wrote.

In covering two sides of the story objectively, journalists failed to look deeply into the nuances of each side. This style of reporting leaves the public without the depth and valuable information they need to know.

“Freeing citizen journalism from expectations of professional journalists will be the best way to allow these new voices to work in the service of democracy,” Usher said.

An industry with both professionals and amateurs

“It’s the same thing as professional musicians versus amateur musicians,” Leary said. “In general a lot of people can play, but people will only pay to hear a professional play in our society, not the mediocre stuff. We’ll go listen to them for free in the park, but we won’t pay extra at the bar to hear them.”

“It’s the same way with lower end journalists; they’re not going to have jobs in the future,” Leary said.

Since news organizations will only be paying for the best journalists in the field that leaves a considerable amount of content to be generated by the citizen journalist.

“Good journalists are getting laid off all over the place in huge numbers,” Mary Calvert, a photojournalist for The Washington Times, said. “And editors are looking to fill that void of news. What better way than to get it for free?”

The staff at the Evansville Courier Press in Kentucky is no exception. Photojournalist of the Courier Press for 12 years, Denny Simmons has seen “the staff cut so thin that more high school students are being used to write stories and they are just inexperienced.”

The question still remains: will the truth of the story prevail when lost in the sea of user generated content? LaBelle believes “the cream will rise to the top.”

“Ultimately there are those who truly are journalists and truly understand their role,” LaBelle said. “They will be respected for that. It’s just a lot easier to shoot a picture, get it published and have it seen than it used to be, which is good and bad.”

Citizen journalism is a beast with growing pains

The crossover between accessibility, smart phone technology and simplicity of posting on the Internet has unleashed the citizen journalist on the public. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it’s out,” said Leary.

With the recent wave of citizen journalism covering breaking news at events like the London bombings, uprisings in Egypt and Libya, it is apparent that citizen journalism has become a part of society and the news.

To cover breaking news, either as a professional or an amateur photojournalist, it’s not about how expensive the camera is or what it is capable of, Piland said.

“I ask my photo students, ‘What’s their best camera?’ and they start naming brands and types of cameras,” said Piland. “But the best camera is the one you have with you. So if the only thing you have with you is your smart phone, then that’s the best thing to have.”

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