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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Online Media’s All-Seeing Eye

By Alex Dibble

For news websites citizen journalism is now a widely used source of online content.

In fact, it’s so widely used that we as consumers often don’t notice we’re watching it, unless the video is of noticeably poor quality, or unless the footage is very obviously being shot in a rushed or unplanned manner.

A very good example is this video, taken by motorists on the A1(M) in January 2010.

Without the footage, the incident didn’t even make the local news. Two months later the video was uploaded onto YouTube, the story became a national item and it was taken up by news media across the country.

This particular video nicely illustrates one of the questions we must pose when defining citizen journalism. What’s the difference between an eye-witness and a citizen journalist?

Does anyone and everyone become a citizen journalist merely because they own a phone?

It’s important to appreciate that as a crucial element of user generated news content, citizen journalism is produced by people who aren’t journalists by trade. Instead, they just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

For this reason the motorway footage just mentioned is a perfect example, because only a handful of people (those also on the A1(M) at the time) could have captured the event taking place. A professional journalist could never have been there – it was statistically improbable and logistically impossible.

However, had a professional journalist been there, they would have chosen to report on such a remarkable event. And this is the point: citizen journalism doesn’t create stories – stories create themselves. But citizen journalism provides a way for stories that wouldn’t otherwise make the news to do just that.

Citizen journalism also provides news media with a source of content as wide and deep as the population itself – a reach that would be impossible to possess if the tools of modern technology did not incorporate Joe Bloggs into the media realm as a contributor.

Suddenly a phone (while not turning everyone into citizen journalists) means that an event which happened in front of just a few, can be distributed to a few million. As soon as it’s uploaded online it’s there to stay and news media reaps the benefits.