Non-Citizen Journalists

By Emily Craig

A US government press conference - the type of event to which only a professional journalist can gain access (Creative Commons licence)

The term ‘citizen journalist’ has become part of the media lexicon. Citizen journalists are those non-professional people out on the street who report information. And many of their reports are in video form, with their footage then uploaded online. ‘You might not be inclined to trust me’, they may as well be saying, ‘but you can see for yourself what’s going on’.

These journalists specialise in showing us what other professional journalists haven’t seen, many of whom are constrained in how they can practice their trade. Whether it’s a case of filling in a 40 page employee risk assessment or compromising on a story to maintain a working relationship with a press office, the professional journalist is not always a free agent. As Channel 4 reporter Jonathan Miller describes, officially-registered journalists are often corralled into attending dull press conferences or herded en masse to staged events. Meanwhile the real story, the news, is happening somewhere else out of sight.

That’s often the time when citizen journalists, with light equipment and local contacts, can get on with their reporting. At the very least, they’re more likely to be in the right place at the right time – and not on the coach tour. In such circumstances (a conflict zone, a foreign country, a remote or closed community), the local, citizen journalist probably has contacts that the professional journalist lacks.

So is the professional journalist a dinosaur doomed to extinction? There are scenarios when citizen journalists are able to showcase the best of their work and, by comparison, the professionals appear lost. But whilst at one level we are witnessing the ‘democratisation’ of journalism, many of the events reported as news are closed off to citizen journalists. A press pass means that you’re a member of an exclusive club – and big events like a national political debate or an entertainment awards ceremony are members-only. In these situations, citizen journalists find themselves ‘disenfranchised’.

Broadcasters are confident that by default they own the monopoly rights to sports and entertainment video journalism and the huge commercial investment that accompanies it. A broadcaster can guarantee stars and sponsors high-quality footage and maximum viewers. What is more, only a professional journalist will be cleared by security. The same broadcasters and agencies are then able to share their videos socially on internet sites like YouTube and UStream where citizen journalists also go to upload content.

For national politics, sport and entertainment, there are different rules for video journalism in comparison to other forms of online media. Anyone can sit at home and live-blog whilst watching a political conference or a football game on the television, but video requires someone to be there on the ground and in sight of what’s happening. The superbowl, the Oscars, the UK political leaders’ debates – people want expert footage of these events, with slow-mo replays or reaction shots. This kind of occasion calls for (more) expensive equipment and a team of journalists to film different angles on the shoot. There’s not much point hanging around at the back door or lingering on the sidelines.

So the big broadcasting beasts are getting social. They’ve paired up with the likes of YouTube for the Oscars and the US political debates. What’s a citizen journalist to do? There’s always ‘the alternative view’ – not from inside the tent, but outside it. A search for ‘political debate’ on video-sharing website Vimeo offers a variety of spoof takes on the format. And there’s always the need for analysis and interpretation…

At the moment, it looks like video journalism is not quite the democracy it might appear to be.

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Watch What’s Happening

By Emily Craig

More and more people are directly streaming their own video online. Not all of it’s journalism in the traditional sense, but some of it is – by design and by chance.

Citizen journalists (and in some cases ‘people in the street’ would be a better way of describing them) are going out armed with nothing more than a mobile phone and with this technology they’re streaming content for others to consume. The Guardian’s website, announcing the fall of Egypt’s President Mubarak in live time, embedded on its homepage a Ustream video of the protests in Tahrir Square.

This type of reporting requires planning – establishing contact with someone on the ground in preparation – but it means a newspaper can play at being a rolling news provider. The Guardian’s Ustream channel has attracted more than 1 million viewers in the 2 months since it was set up.

Ustream describes itself as an ‘interactive broadcast platform’ that ‘enables anyone with an internet connection and a camera to engage their audience in a meaningful, immediate way’. Minus the PR speak, it’s a Californian dotcom company that allows people to stream video content live on their own channel. With the proliferation of 3G phones, websites like UStream are capitalising on the number of people uploading and consuming video content.

Qik.com, justin.tv and YouTube all offer a similar service. Justin.tv sees 300 million visitors per month. Rival Ustream has 2,000,000 registered users and 5 times as many unique hits so it’s hardly surprising that it now wants to expand into the Asian market with the help of a Japanese investor.

Some of these streamed videos could be described as journalism in the old-school sense. For instance, Ustream provided coverage of certain debates in the 2008 US Presidential elections. But a lot of these videos are socially valuable, rather than newsworthy; in other words, you might think you’ve arrived at a social media site rather than a news portal.

But, crucially, can a website be both? The likes of Ustream and justin.tv are undoubtedly democratic in their approach. People, rather than television networks, decide what’s popular and what’s worthy of being shared (although users can opt to share their videos privately with a select group).

All these video streaming sites emphasise the importance of allowing people to ‘engage’ in a ‘social’ way by sharing video. But with the quality of video content varying widely, will the best videos be the most popular and the most shared?

It’s difficult for Ustream to argue that its service is ‘all about premium content’ when there’s no editorial processes at work. And it’s important to remember that people are streaming their videos live – they’re not editing their footage . This can make for raw immediacy or CCTV-type wallpaper.

In the words of qik.com, ‘Interesting moments can happen anywhere’. The challenge for these video streamers is to be in the right place at the right time.