Quoted in Buffalo News: Citizen Journalism and the Snowstorm

Quoted in Buffalo News on the local citizen journalism phenomenon
Click to read full scanned or text article. Includes quotes from Alex Halavais, Jim Milles, me and many others…

Last week, Buffalo News journalist Steve Watson emailed me something he discovered while perusing YouTube. He had encountered personal videos of the snowstorm which wrecked havoc throughout Buffalo this October. There wasn’t just one, two, or ten video clips for that matter… there were about a hundred of such clips published by people like you and me. My friend Dan Klosterman had mentioned this after seeing some of my own videos and this later inspired him to pen a critical view of traditional news media:

“Blogs and YouTube are changing the ways we get our news, that’s becoming painfully evident here. Why should I bother with biased, filtered opinion when I can get the news, on the spot, unfiltered from a bystander. There are no editors or managers standing over their shoulders, telling them what to cut to garner bigger ratings. No one telling these people how to post to sensationalize the story. I think this is pretty amazing. User-based journalism. It’s pretty exciting if you think about it. Anyone with a digital camera (basically everyone), anyone with a video camera (basically everyone) can now report news and events with a simple flip of the switch.”

That’s not an uncommon train of thought, especially since we’ve realized the how new media re-distributes attention power to the masses (so called ex-consumers). Even so, making such a claim might not be fair to journalists, since it belittles their professional trade. From what Steve shared with me, plenty of reporters and newscasters had no power at home just like the rest of us, yet they made their way through the driving ban and stayed up the weekend at work to deliver news and safety information to citizens as part of their professional ethic. As the Rambling Librarian once summed up to me: “Journalists have deadlines, Bloggers don’t”.

Still, while the Internet already offers abundant news sources to consumers, surely citizen journalism is just one more nail in the traditional news industry’s coffin… isn’t it? An obvious sign can be found in the nationwide decline in newspaper circulation as reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for a six-month period ending September 2006:

This is the fourth consecutive semi-annual report to register a severe drop in daily circulation and — perhaps more troubling to the industry — Sunday copies. While the estimated decline 2.8% for daily circulation for all reporting papers may seem negligible, consider that in years past that decrease averaged around 1%. Sunday, considered the industry’s bread-and-butter, showed even steeper losses, with a decline of about 3.4%.

Is our dear newspaper going… going… gone? Perhaps we should ask if citizen journalism has to replace mainstream news media in the first place? Can the bureaucracy and the citizen individual both possibly co-exist and even work off each other as partners? Before I can get into this, let’s start by explaining the citizen journalism phenomenon. Here’s the complete interview (edited for brevity) Steve had with me which didn’t make the Monday print…

Steve: Are you surprised that so many people took videos and posted them on YouTube?

Kevin: Having seen a number of Youtube videos relating to the Buffalo snowstorm, I was quite amazed at the number of people who created them. Even if those watching the videos on Youtube aren’t from Buffalo, the sheer amount of coverage given by local citizens should give them a clear picture as to how sever this storm has been to us. This has been interesting because for the typical person, producing a video is typically more complex and takes more time than say taking a photo. That said, a look at the Buffalo snowstorm through the popular photo sharing web service, Flickr.com, revealed a mountainous collection of images ranging around 800+ photographs. These photos are equally amazing as I’ve seen (with great detail) where the photographers document everything from what they did when there was no power to what the world looked like outside their homes.

Steve: This seems to be happening more and more with major events, news events, natural disasters. Do you agree?

Kevin: Major events likes these typically make great human-interest stories, with the person documenting and sharing the event usually having a vested interest in the subject matter (e.g. being caught in it). As seen in the report entitled “We Media” (download full paper in PDF) by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, this act of collecting, organizing and disseminating news and information is known as citizen journalism. While some photos and videos were probably intended for family and friends, these media are still publicly accessible and some have also been used on blogs to form a more complete story.

Kevin: Collectively, all this is known as user-generated content. In some cases, this content can be very valuable. The best example was back on 7th July 2005… the London bombing. Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news, said that within minutes of the first blast, they had received images from the public. An hour later they had 50 images and soon after thousands more. Some consider this a major tipping point in the world of journalism when BBC News as well as other news agencies started using user submitted photos and videos for their news broadcast. Some also attributed the camera phone as changing the face of news.

Steve: Why do people do this? What does this say about the times we live in?

Kevin: I see three main motivations for this phenomenon of citizen journalism:

1. Newsworthiness – The snowstorm was unusual, making it extremely newsworthy to share with relatives and friends. Depending on how affected the video creators were by the storm, it would likely result in a greater need to record this unique personal experience. By looking at various videos and photos, the public can literally get a bigger picture of the issue at hand. Think of this an act of civic duty.

2. “Because they can” – The technology necessary to enable all this has become ubiquitous. We’re talking about how photo and video cameras are now embedded in all kinds of gadgets we own be it cell phone, PDAs, and even some MP3 players. The typical digital video camera has also become more portable and durable, allowing such recording devices to be used in a greater variety of situations. Likewise, the rise of online video sharing services such as YouTube and Google Video can be attributed to how many find it a great new way to either past time or share their experiences with others.

3. Identity – It might be subconscious to many, we tend to have a need for something to identify ourselves with. This is especially so when we realize how our life is transient, and that we might want to be remembered beyond death. Thus, we record and share these experiences with one another through various channels. In turn, others get a sense of who we are and what we’ve gone through in our lives. How do you want to be remembered? I think it’s similar to the academic notion of “publish or perish”.

So how are traditional news agencies working with citizen journalists?
Now Steve didn’t get far enough to ask me this, but there are several traditional news agencies have started to take advantage of available citizen journalists and their user-generated content. This is how I personally see both news corporations and budding citizen journalists working hand in hand…

CNN.com has launched a new section called CNN Exchange that solicits and posts user video, photos and comments (called “I-Reports”). BBC has a section on their UK site which includes sections for you to “Have Your Say” and “In Pictures ” which lets you send in photos.

Heck, even in tightly controlled China, anyone can be a reporter. As the reporter Dante Chinni puts it, “When people are armed with camera phones, information is harder to quash”. Eric Zhang, a former staffer at the China Daily news organization based in Beijing, has launched www.molive.cn, a site that lets ordinary people gather news with their camera cellphones. Editors would comb the postings and put the best ones on Molive’s home page. The site launched this year in September, but has already more than 100 people posting on it from all around the country and more than 20,000 readers a day.

There are plenty more examples of such collaborations out there, but as you discover more, let me throw you one more curve ball: When does citizen journalism become exploited as a news corporation’s way of crowdsourcing their content for a dime?

7 thoughts on “Quoted in Buffalo News: Citizen Journalism and the Snowstorm

  1. New digital media mean that very little can be hidden. Bloggers, podcasters, vidcasters and the like can have a crucial role to play in bringing issues to light and, in some cases, directing the mainstream media’s attention to these issues. What the mainstream media have that citizen journalists lack is the resources to conduct in-depth reporting.

    Unfortunately, for years too many journalists have belittled their own professional trade by failing to do this sort of in-depth and critical reporting. Some do–Sy Hersh at The New Yorker, a few others–but most of the journalists on the network and cable news and most of the print newspapers are content to serve as stenographers to the administration. Reporting on issues is hard; it’s much easier to report on polls and transcribe Republican talking points. Hence the media attention to the non-issue of the Kerry joke in the runup to tomorrow’s elections.

  2. dude…I’ve been following your blog for a while. Just wanna say great job for another great piece on social participation via the web. keep it up~

    in any case, the consumer tech+web have made both production and distribution of media (in this case news reported by ordinary folks) extremely cheap, such that we are now bombarded with a plethora of “free” information. As someone who read more than 100+ blogs on a daily basis, I value the editorial function served by some of these “top” blogs/news agencies. Of course, there’s always space for “serious journalism” which might just be out of reach for the everyday blogger; and this is where I think traditional media should really step up its game.

    Two great blogs on this subject matter:

    fellow singaporean

  3. Jim Milles: Well said. Perhaps journalists are fearful of purposeful, critical reporting because they are afraid of having an opinion and seeing it through. No Guts, No Glory?

    Michael Cho: Thanks for the kudos. I try to keep up but most of the time my real world keeps holding me back. On your second paragraph, you refer to the news editorial as having a “filtering” function. This is especially challenging since memetrackers (or news aggregators) are helping us do that with blog posting in real time. Some of my favorites include tailrank.com and techmeme.com. If you’re interested, I have a podcast interview with Matthew Chen of Megite, a white-label news aggregator.

    Elaine: One aspect of media is that it is never agenda-free; there is always a point to be made. If you refer to citizen journalists having “ulterior motives”, users would be able to sense that and over time, determine if that person is worth listening to. I believe that for devoted citizen journalists, they would partake in a natural reputation system which has worked for bloggers in general… where decent content drives consistent readership.

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