Next Generation Journalism?

By Emily Craig

First generation phone technology? (Creative Commons licence)

At the beginning of this week, the UK communications regulator Ofcom announced that it would be auctioning off sections of the 4G mobile phone spectrum in 2012. Most mobile phones currently operate using third generation or ‘3G’ technology, allowing users to check their emails and surf the Internet. But it’s easy to become frustrated – 3G coverage is patchy and websites frequently drop their connections. Streaming or uploading video on a 3G phone is a particularly thankless task. So will the new 4G technology liberate video journalists?

When 4G mobile phones arrive on the scene next year, networks will be able to offer an Internet connection that is 25 times faster than the average home broadband. In the US and Germany, the 4G spectrum has already been divided up and the development of next generation phones is continuing apace. The iPhone 4, which boasts two separate cameras, allows you to shoot video in HD at up to 30 frames per second.

So what will next generation technology mean for video journalism? There is certainly the potential for more quality footage to appear online, in the sense that we’ll be looking at higher resolution films. However, it’s less clear what the impact will be on the content of video journalism. In theory, more people will be able to shoot and upload their own videos and it will be easier to live-stream. But will new gadgetry necessarily produce better video journalism?

At one level, it would not be surprising if 4G technology enabled the proliferation of citizen journalism in the UK. Yet citizen journalism is a phenomenon that’s been celebrated most fervently for the role it’s played in the Arab Spring. Would 4G technology make a difference to citizen journalism in these places?

For a start, there’s no sign of 4G technology being introduced in countries like Egypt or Libya. But, even if it did exist, what would be the use of owning a phone capable of uploading HD video if the authorities succeed in blocking access to the Internet (as has happened across the Middle East)? Furthermore, is it logical to expect a country without a free press to be eager to develop 4G technology?

British newspaper journalists observing the Egyptian uprising earlier this year described (not without nostalgia) how they were forced to dictate their articles via satellite phone. When the Internet is down, broadcast journalists can send back their footage via satellite. By contrast, citizen journalists without professional tech support can find themselves in a position where they can’t share what they’ve seen and heard.

There are 5.3 billion mobile phone users in the world and 90% of the global population is in range of a mobile network. But as more countries develop their 4G capabilities, there’s a danger of assuming that improved communications technology will inevitably result in ‘improved’ journalism.

4G technology could enable more varied, more interesting and more immediate video journalism. But occasionally technology fails or is sabotaged – and when it does, it’s important the journalism doesn’t disappear with it. Sometimes there can be no substitute for a professional journalist with a camera.

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Being Smart With Phones

By Alex Dibble

Some news media are missing a trick when it comes to gathering citizen journalism

The image above shows the iPhone apps for BBC News and Sky News. They’re both designed well, with a ‘user friendly’ interface which makes navigation easy and brings the top stories to smartphone users in an instant.

Another interesting feature of these two apps can be seen here:

Both include an option to send your own story to the newsroom. But, crucially the Sky News app allows you to attach a video (as the image below shows), while the BBC equivalent facilitates just photos.

Does this give Sky a significant advantage?

It’s difficult to tell. So far, 2011’s been the year of citizen journalism (in terms of video at least).

The uprisings in North Africa, as well as the natural disasters in New Zealand and Japan have made for some incredible footage being filmed on mobile phones.

But if you’re on the rooftop of a building in Ishinomaki filming the tsunami as it engulfs the city, where would you post the footage?

These days, if you want the world to see what you’ve just recorded, your best bet is either TwitVid or YouTube. If the footage is ‘good’ enough it’ll be seen by news media and used for broadcast.

So for Sky to provide a video uploading facility on their iPhone app doesn’t pay off when major events are occuring overseas.

But what about happenings within the UK?

We all know that when it comes to consuming news most of the public have one provider they tend to stick with.

Whether it be the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 or any other, loyalty keeps most consumers consuming from one source.

So if, for example, a newsworthy event was captured on an iPhone belonging to a Sky News fan, there’s a good chance they’d want to give Sky News exclusive access to that footage. And so the video uploader on Sky’s app would come in handy.

When it comes to loyalty and news consumption though, the public is ‘defined’ more by the newspaper they buy.

But despite being increasingly concerned with online video content in recent years, none of the major daily’s in this country provide a platform for user generated content on their smartphone apps.

On the Guardian’s app, for example, you can’t upload a photo, let alone a video.

With user loyalty such an ingrained part of news consumption in the UK, the BBC as well as the newspapers are missing a trick.

When Sky’s given that one clip – the exclusive video that transfixes the nation – the BBC and  daily papers will regret they haven’t provided their own consumers with a means to send similar footage from their smart phones.

The Libyan Dilemma

By Chris Creegan

Why citizen video journalism will play a far greater role in Libya than in Egypt

Citizen video journalism has been useful in providing us with information during the recent uprisings in the Middle East. With Egypt in particular, it has supplemented the reports of mainstream news media organisations around the world.

Now, however, attention has shifted to the protests in Libya. This African nation is very different from neighbouring Egypt, and it poses far greater challenges when it comes to reporting.

Crucially, Egypt allowed Western journalists significant access to the country. Even those that reported from the safety of their hotel balconies were able to cover the uprising with a degree of detail.

Libya, on the other hand, does not permit foreign journalists within its borders. It also appears to be clamping down on citizens who attempt to relay information with greater force than we saw in Egypt.

Added to this, the country’s internet has effectively been shut down. Libya is truly cut off from the rest of the world.

News organisations have therefore had to rely solely on the eyewitness accounts of a small number of Libyan citizens for information. ‘Unconfirmed reports’ and inflated death tolls have become an inevitability.

The lack of reliable, newsworthy information coming from the ground in Libya means that citizen video journalism is more important than ever before.

Whilst anti-Kaddafi protesters may report distorted numbers of those who have died, there is at least an assurance of accuracy with the old adage “the camera doesn’t lie.”

Footage shot by Libyan citizens on camera phones has been making its way onto the internet over the past few days, despite the attempts of Colonel Kaddafi’s regime to limit communication with the outside world.

This footage, secured by ITN, appears to show members of Libya’s security forces opening fire on crowds of protesters.

Whilst the reporter points out that it cannot be independently verified, the amateur video provides some of the best (and only) picture evidence of what is happening in the country.

As the situation develops, footage like this will continue to play a vital role in telling us the story of Libya.

Without it, we are completely in the dark as to what is happening in the country.

Does Quality Matter?

By Phil Georgiadis

One of the most striking aspects of the surge in user generated video appearing on TV news broadcasts is the effect that this has had on the quality of footage used.

We’re currently living in the high-definition age, and across television there is an obsession with detailed, high quality pictures to strike the audience, grab their attention, and keep them tuned in.

But while the HD age is going to become an accepted and indeed expected part of the broadcast news landscape in the coming years, the rise in user generated content seen on news channels, especially video snapped on a smart phone or camera, seems to stand in contrast with the search for clean, impressive quality professional footage.

Think back to the past few momentous weeks in Egypt. The Western media were often stuck broadcasting from their hotels in a story that was quickly dubbed the ‘balcony revolution’ by the industry. The images which defined the Egypt affair, apart from the live Reuters static shot of Tahrir Square, were the ones sourced from the protestors themselves. Shakily shot on mobile phones or amateur equipment, they told the story of the Revolution from the inside.

By Thursday February 3rd, all of the major UK news broadcasters were in place, anchoring live from Cairo. Watching the opening packages from the BBC, ITV and Channel Four evening news, a single sequence stood out. There was of course well filmed, striking footage across all three broadcasters, filed by the cream of the world’s cameramen. But one sequence stood out, found on Youtube by Channel Four News and filmed on a protestor’s phone, it shows Egyptians being run over as they try to demonstrate.

This shaky, chaotic and utterly shocking video captures the essence of the Egyptian revolution. Similarly the defining image from the student protests last year in Milbank was the grainy footage and pictures of Charles and Camilla’s car being mobbed.

These examples sum up the new juxtaposition between polished, high quality video journalism on TV, and raw footage ripped from the web. Televison news is a picture led medium. And in the internet age, the quality of the footage is a secondary priority. Whoever filmed it, however grainy and shaky, the best pictures always tell the story best. And increasingly, they are being sourced through unconventional means, as the world’s newsgathering process becomes more diffused and less linear.

Censorship Kills the Video Star

photo courtesy of graciolli, via Flickr

By Alex Dibble

Recent revolutions reveal the danger posed to authorities of citizen journalism finding its way online.

The issue of internet censorship’s been thrust once again into the limelight. As thousands of Egyptians take to the streets in protest against President Hosni Mubarak the authorities have taken special care to restrict communications.

Al Jazeera have been ordered to stop broadasting, and web access has been severely stunted. Internet monitoring organisation Renesys have reported that all routes to Egyptian networks have been withdrawn.

It’s not the first time such an action’s happened. In Iran, for example, the regime implemented an extensive filtering operation at the time of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s disputed presidential election victory in 2009.

Disabling communication is the primary motive in these cases, as much of the protests are organised via the web.

But there’s a second advantage – removing the ability to easily upload video footage.

On December 9th 2010 thousands of students took to the streets of London as MPs debated whether to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000. As the scenes got ugly, one protester filmed policemen tipping a teenager from his wheelchair and dragging him across the street.

The footage was uploaded onto YouTube, made the national press and provoked widespread condemnation of the police officers involved.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) later said it would oversee an investigation. The footage also led to further protests against the use of violence by police.

With criticism of the authorities abounding, it’s easy to see why the Egyptian government would like to prevent those on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez from accessing the internet.