19.134 digital technologies in citizen journalism

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 9 Jul 2005 06:33:57 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 134.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 08 Jul 2005 16:36:04 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: digital technologies in citizen journalism

The following article from the Washington Post for Friday 8 July 2005
enlarges on my earlier note about the use of communications
technologies in the recent London bombings.


Witnesses to History

By Robert MacMillan

The world sees London's tribulation through the eyes of Adam Stacey
and the words of Matina Zoulia.

   Their stories of the moments following the bomb blasts that struck
the city during the Thursday morning rush hour captured public
attention in a way that few news stories could. In other words,
citizen journalism passed the breaking-news test.

   Try not to lose yourself in Stacey's photograph of a frightened
commuter, shot inside the crippled London Underground. Ponder
Zoulia's weblog entry on the Guardian's Web site: "As I was going
towards the [King's Cross station] exit there was this smell. Like
burning hair. And then the people starting walking out, soot and
blood on their faces. And then this woman's face. Half of it covered in blood."

   This is the essence of reporting -- vivid, factual accounts of
history as it explodes around us. People like me spend years in
J-school learning how to do it just right. We spend the subsequent
years subjecting you to the mixed results. Stacey, Zoulia and
hundreds of other amateur journalists, packing camera phones and an
urge to blog, reminded us how simple it should be.

   The term "citizen journalism" is making the rounds among reporters
and editors as newspapers try to keep the money rolling in while
bloggers -- and their own Web sites -- raid their readership. I often
hear it mentioned with the same desperate reverence that Dumbo gave
his magic feather -- how it'll bring in fresh voices, followed by
readers, then dollars.

   You might wonder how this is different from what we've seen in the
past. News operations have used the contributions of impromptu
reporters from Abraham Zapruder to the dozens of video camera
operators who started capturing naughty police episodes in the early
1990s (think Rodney King ). Community voices have always contributed
to local and national papers.

   Citizen journalism is different. It often covers a wide territory
from soliciting arts and entertainment coverage to providing the
angle on the city council budget that the cub reporter might have missed.

   The London attacks moved the trend to a new level. Web sites from
the BBC's to the Guardian's provided eyewitness accounts, some
showing up as little as an hour or two after the first bomb went off.
Rather than relying on unfocused, rambling blog entries, the London
papers and the Beeb ran pithy postings from the people who were
there. They ran alongside the staff reporters' accounts and
presumably with the same amount of editing.

   Nearly every U.K. news Web site this morning features similar
accounts, along with forums for people to submit feedback and share
their thoughts on the blasts. (See the inset above for a list of some
of the more prominent news sites.)

   It was a different way of doing things than when citizen journalism
experienced its first big story in last December's tsunami, said Dan
Gillmor, a former technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News
and current proprietor of the Bayosphere citizen journalism project.

   The tsunami prompted bloggers to post thousands of video entries
and journal-style stories that circulated the Internet in a huge
swarm of unedited data. London, he said, showed how that data could
be edited like traditional news and fill the gaps that the news could not.

   The BBC didn't just give readers and eyewitnesses the power to
share their stories. It also let reporters file brief accounts of
what they saw. Here is one interesting observation from Dominic
Casciani: "The evening commute home from the City of London has began
in a way that people have not seen before.Hundreds and hundreds of
city workers are walking the length of Whitechapel Road, packing the
pavements, because there is no other way they can leave their
offices. The A-Z map of the capital is fast becoming ubiquitous --but
it is strange to see so many Londoners carrying them, not knowing how
to make their way home on foot."

   News outlets here in the States filed stories on the technology
that allowed amateur reporters to shine:

   My colleague at The Washington Post, Yuki Noguchi, wrote about how
the increasing amount of people using camera phones contributed to
compelling amateur journalism: "Camera phones, once a novelty, now
outsell digital cameras by about 4 to 1, according to analyst data.
As more sophisticated phones and higher-speed networks have become
available, wireless companies have recently started offering video
camcorders on their phones that can nearly instantly transmit moving
pictures over e-mail or onto the Internet."

   The Los Angeles Times filed a similar report: "The video provided
an immediate and intimate look at the scene but was hardly polished
or professional. That's because it was shot not with television
cameras but with mobile phones -- the first widespread use of that
technology in covering a major breaking news story. Loaded with
features including text messaging, video games, cameras, live TV and
the ability to record and transmit video through the Internet, the
phones have become must-have items, especially among teens. They've
been banned as voyeuristic irritants -- or worse -- at venues ranging
from schools to Hollywood movie screenings. But, as they proved in
London on Thursday, they can also provide a ground-level view of
history. 'You forget how many people have these phones now and how
much more of the first minutes of an event you're going to see,' said
Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage for ABC."

   Newsday quoted New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen
as saying that the British media is several steps ahead of us in
using reader contributions: "There's no comparison in what the BBC is
doing and what we've seen here."

   With any luck, the performance of Great Britain's daily papers and
their Web sites will take us beyond the blogging-versus-journalism
debate. They showed us regular people keeping their wits about them
in a traumatic situation, and sharing what they experienced with the
rest of us. The news staffs showed that they could blend that with
their professional operations.

   Let's hope that the next opportunity to test this relationship
occurs under happier circumstances.

   I got on the Internet around 4:30 a.m. on Thursday to write
yesterday's edition of Random Access, right around the time that news
outlets were reporting that something was seriously amiss in London.
Shortly after that I had an e-mail exchange with a source who I
wanted to make sure was unharmed. He wrote back immediately and noted
that e-mail was the only way he could communicate with his friends,
noting that for the time being, the wireless phone networks were
"shot to hell."

   Sure enough, the ripple effect of friends and relatives anxiously
calling and texting one another put a huge strain on the networks.
Michael Grebb reported on this for Wired.com: "'(Mobile) phones were
erratic for a few hours,' said London resident Stuart Williams, an IT
manager. 'Thankfully, normal phones were fine, and the Internet, of
course, was fine.'"

   Here's more from the BBC: "To limit congestion, network operators
urged those using their mobiles to keep calls as short as possible
following the explosions across London. ... Shortly after the
explosions, a spokeswoman for Virgin Mobile, which piggybacks on the
T-Mobile network, said: 'There are so many people making calls at the
moment it is taking a while for people to get through. The volume of
calls has really surged.' Many of those caught up in the chaos who
found that the mobile networks were down reportedly went into shops
to beg the use of a phone."

   My source told me that some people think that in situations like
this, law enforcement should ask network operators to limit
availability to prevent terrorists from using cell phones. The BBC
picked up on this as well, but noted some skepticism regarding this
idea: "Terrorism expert Professor Michael Clarke from the
International Policy Institute at King's College London, speculated
that the problems might be a security measure. 'I've heard rumours
that the mobile network is down, possibly shutdown,' he said. 'This
could be because the MO (modus operandi) in Madrid was by setting off
devices with mobile phones.' But mobile firms denied that the
government had used emergency powers to shut down the networks."

   We've seen things like this happen before. I was in Portugal on
Sept. 11, 2001, , and like so many others I found it impossible to
contact people on their cell phones or land lines. When the blackout
struck the Northeast power grid in August 2003, we experienced
similar problems.

   The New York Times wrote that networks often set aside space for
emergency services: "Ben Padovan, a spokesman for Vodafone, the
world's largest mobile operator, said this system gives priority to
callers with certain SIM cards, using a coding system called the
international mobile subscriber identity, or IMSI. 'As an ordinary
subscriber, under the IMSI, you would have had a lower level of
service,' he said."

   At least they've thought this one through.

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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street |
London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sat Jul 09 2005 - 01:56:31 EDT

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