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The citizen journalist: How ordinary people are taking control of the news

Abraham Zapruder and George Holliday were two normal American citizens with home video cameras. Just two guys who changed the nature of how the world consumes news.

Zapruder, a woman’s clothing manufacturer, captured the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and started a fierce bidding war for the footage. Holliday, a manager at a plumbing and rooting company, fired up his Sony Handycam on March 3, 1991 to record four Los Angeles policemen brutally beating up Rodney King. Both clips shocked the planet.

Feidin Santana and Kevin Moore are two normal American citizens with home video cameras, two more guys to change the world. On April 4, Santana recorded a former South Carolina policeman shooting and killing the unarmed Michael Scott. Moore recorded Freddie Gray requesting medical attention in mid-April while under police custody — and being ignored hours before he died in the custody of Baltimore policemen.

It would take days for the Zapruder and Holliday clips to be released to the public through news outlets. Today, that delay is essentially zero.

In a world where cameras are everywhere, the truth is accessible to more people. Does a modern news agency inform citizens by relying on citizen journalists?

Technology Transformation

“There’s nothing quite like live video to put people in the moment when it comes to breaking news.” — Josh Stearns, who follows citizen journalism at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Citizen journalism dates back to the 18th century, when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay disseminated information on the U.S. Constitution in the Federalist Papers. Then this thing called the Internet appeared, and now anyone with a cellphone can live-stream breaking news events as simply as taking a selfie. To spread news of unreported disappearances in Iraq in 2003, all that an architect calling himself “Salam Pax” needed was a blog. Add YouTube to the mix and citizen journalists have something uniquely modern: self-distribution to millions with complete content control.

In a world where cameras are everywhere, the truth is accessible to more people.

This basic shift has massive repercussions for newsrooms. In May of last year, the Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire staff of full-time photographers, claiming in a press release that the paper’s audience was “seeking more video content with their news.” The very next day, the paper mandated that its reporters partake in “iPhone photography basics.” Lorainne Branham, dean of Syracuse University’s award-winning Newhouse School of communication, told Digital Trends this shift in the industry is reflected in how future journalists are taught.

Related: Obama to fund $75 million for police body cameras

“Social media is a part of the journalism landscape right now,” Branham said. “We teach our students how to utilize social media, how to use Facebook to gather information, how to get sources, how to tweet information out.” Slowly, professional journalists are employing the same fact gathering tactics as pre-teens.

Benefits of Citizen Journalism

Live news is delayed in order to censor cursing, but a well known secret about the news is that there’s a more natural delay to live TV. “Network guys get to events later than they happen,” Ford Fischer, co-founder of independent news organization News2Share, told Digital Trends. “So [citizens] are filming when something crazy is happening in front of them.” News2Share was started in late August 2013 by Fischer and American University schoolmate Trey Yingst, a broadcast journalism graduate. The pair accept videos from citizens and recently received combat footage via Facebook of the Peshmerga army fighting ISIS in Iraq and being shot at by Kurdish soldiers.

Simple math. There are more civilians than journalists. More civilian journalists mean more eyes searching for a story.

From Rodney King in the late 80s to Walter Scott earlier this year, citizen journalism has helped expose police brutality. As a result, police transparency has been a focal point in the Obama administration as they and the Department of Justice both announced separate plans to fund the acquisition by numerous police departments of tens of thousands of body cameras. TASER International — body camera provider for 98 percent of police departments using the technology — informed Digital Trends that government dollars may not actually arrive until 2016. “The money will have to be new money, and that’s always a challenge — especially as the law enforcement grants keep getting smaller for other necessary equipment.” Body cameras may improve clarity in some situations, but they do not fundamentally preclude misinformation; public release of the footage depends on each individual police department. For example, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed the exemption of body camera footage from the Freedom of Information Act, and D.C. police are already planning to limit who sees the footage.

Citizen journalists don’t just get to where professional journalists can’t go, they get to places professional journalists won’t go.

Given the uncertainties surrounding body camera footage, citizen journalists could be a necessary circumvention to such policies, as they can get access to places most journalists can not. “The guys with big network type cameras, in particular when [protesters] can see what brand they are — CNN, Fox, or whatever — those guys tend to get assaulted,” Fischer said. It may be a bit easier for the average citizen to blend in with a mob than Don Lemon.

Citizen journalists don’t just get to where professional journalists can’t go, they get to places professional journalists won’t go. Branham attributes layoffs and downsizing to why news organizations aren’t covering local communities the way they used to. “Part of the criticism you hear about the media from some of these communities is that ‘you’re not telling our stories’ or ‘you only report about the negative stuff,'” she said.

Ashley Kang, a graduate of Newhouse, is the director of an community newspaper called The Stand which pairs members of the Syracuse community with college students to work on news reporting. “When we pair residents with students, residents know the neighborhood,” Kang remarked. “They know all the people you should talk to and then the student can quickly pull information.”

Pitfalls of Citizen Journalism

Spreading the truth through rogue Periscopers can prove efficient, but costly in the grand scheme.

Kang says new citizen journalists at The Stand have had trouble interviewing subjects and executing ideas; they need proper guidance. Dean Branham feels this is a central problem to the idea of calling people “journalists” simply because they’ve filmed an event.

“Usually when people are out there capturing something on video, they’re capturing a moment in time of what happened and they’re not attempting to put it into context,” she explained. Someone could live stream a suicide attempt and have no means of redacting the faces of innocent bystanders, or they may have no qualms with capturing the actual suicide — measures taken by professional journalists.

Everyone has some sort of prejudice, but professional journalists are taught to disavow that and under every circumstance provide objectivity. The part-time worker who wants to make a quick buck by filming cop arrests has no incentive or training to abide by ethics. “The company could send their own person [to an event] trying to promote a product,” Kang theorizes. With newsroom-downsizing leaving less time dedicated to editorial oversight, abuses to a system that takes the juiciest stories from untrained journalists could be quite easy and rampant. If an esteemed journalist such as Brian Williams can pass off false memories of combat as truth, an impressionable citizen could do worse without the right guidance and structure.

Efforts to Help and Work with Citizen Journalism

MediaQ is one of the few initiatives with the infrastructure to reduce abuses to a citizen journalism/news outlet system. MediaQ is an online media management platform started by the University of Southern California’s (USC) Integrated Media Systems Center; it collects user-generated content for sharing among registered members. When a citizen records and uploads a video to MediaQ, the location and viewing direction of the video is automatically added. A news organization could also send out a request on MediaQ for footage of a certain event. For example, NBC could send an alert for footage of a robbery that they may not have a reporter nearby for. MediaQ and any citizen journalist registered in the system near the specified location will receive that notification.

There are YouTube tutorials and idiot guides to learn how to be a journalist, but humans are still the best training resource. Kang and The Stand hold full-day mentorship workshops where community members are paired with journalism graduate students who help them source, interview and edit their articles. The students end the day with their article posted online, a move Kang admits “kind of motivated people more, got them more interested.” When The Stand launched in late 2009, an early goal was for it to be financially stable enough for it to be solely run by community residents. Kang told Digital Trends that The Stand’s board members begun discussing this proposition and looking to secure more grants and advertisers earlier this year.

In an age where nearly one-third of U.S. adults receive their news from Facebook, the paper is the last place we look for timely information.

The Baltimore Sun created an interactive timeline of the incidents leading to Freddie Gray’s death. Each point in time is accompanied with a description of the events described by the police reports and official statements as well as video testimonials and amateur footage of Baltimore residents who witnessed the ordeal. NBC News dedicated a section of its news to citizen journalism in 2005. Eight years later, the company purchased user-generated live video service Stringwire, and last year used the service to post exclusive user-generated footage of the Ferguson protests. With police officers on film tampering with crime scenes as evidenced in the shooting of Walter Scott, the NSA illegally collecting all of our phone data and mainstream news outlets seemingly limited by their proximity and access, now is as good as anytime to expand journalism’s reach.

YouTube and social media news agency Storyful recently partnered for YouTube Newswire, a YouTube channel of verified eyewitness videos. The videos are separated by the news they capture and are a mix of amateur and professionally shot videos. Parts of Oklahoma and Texas were hit with eight to nine inches of rain and flash flooding on Wednesday and within hours YouTube Newswire organized a collection of amateur videos of the flooding from inside cars, homes and even roofs. YouTube has also launched First Draft Coalition, a group of “thought leaders and pioneers in social media journalism” providing journalists with advice on the ethics and practices of handling citizen-shot footage. We have reached a point where journalism needs to learn from the people it reports.

The news moves quickly. In an age where nearly one-third of U.S. adults receive their news from Facebook, the paper is the last place we look for timely information. You are the Feidin Santana. You are CNN. You are NBC.  You are Kevin Moore.

You are the news. Report responsibly.