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.

The battle for Zawiyah – professional journalism trumping online video content

By Phil Georgiadis

Many of the posts on this blog have been looking at how powerful user generated videos have been at documenting the unrest throughout the Arab world.

Clearly, the power of social media offers a glimpse into events which otherwise would go undocumented, as mobile phones and digital cameras become powerful tools at offering the outside world glimpses of events.

But some of the professional journalism which we have been watching throughout the unrest has highlighted the flaws in citizen video journalism.

Youtube clips of demonstrations and atrocities do not offer a coherent picture- instead they are snapshots into events, often presenting a dislocated narrative which it is hard to form a clear picture through.

Recently, Sky News has been showing a report by its mulit-award winning Asia correspondent Alex Crawford, which documents the battle for the Libyan town of Zawiyah with extraordinary clarity and power.

If you haven’t yet watched it I recommend you click on the video below- it is a brave and compelling piece of journalism.

Most importantly, this is a rare opportunity to gain a full idea of what was happening on the ground. Instead of snatches of footage from the protestors, this is a linear narrative of a full weekend in the town, as it came under relentless assault from pro-Gaddafi forces.

The fact that it is also presented from a personal perspective, the first person narrative is particularly striking, adds both to the coherency, and also verifiability of the piece.

Crawford is a trusted journalist, we know when watching the report that isolated incidents are not being hyped upped- it is instead a sober and realistic view into life under assault in Libya.

It is a staggering piece of journalism, and although online video content delivered via social media has essentially been the heartbeat of media coverage of regime crackdowns in the Middle East, this report should make us all take stock, step back, and remember that on the rare occasion that it is possible- professional journalism from the scene remains the most powerful way of reporting global news events.

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.