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Citizen Journalists and Modern Chronicles of Disaster

Journalists as News Aggregators

Jeff Jarvis, author, journalist, and new media visionary provided his thoughts on citizen journalism during a CNN interview (13 March 2011) following the Japan tsunami disaster.  One of the most interesting ideas concerned the immediacy and presence of citizens able to record events, and distribute recorded events in near real time.  Jarvis expressed the idea that we cannot wait for traditional journalists to arrive at the scene of an event, and with new devices such as cell phone cameras and the Internet any citizen can provide raw materials which journalists may then provide deeper context.

Citizen Journalism 2011Journalists as News Aggregators

Tradition news media is still working to fully understand the deal with the idea of citizen journalism, and how to use the global pool of news recorders to not only their benefit, but also the benefit of viewers and readers.  Jarvis further developed the idea of media becoming an aggregator of news recorded by amateur sources around the world.  Whether it is through a CNN iReport, KTLA “My Capture/Your KTLA,” or a Fox news “U-Report,” traditional media has recognized the power of citizens, and is aggressively recruiting citizen sources to supplement their own news sources.

As Jarvis mentioned, there is no way traditional media companies can provide adequate on-the-scene journalists to cover all aspects of a story or event.  Thus if citizens are able to provide more raw materials, and the traditional media company can collate or aggregate those materials, while adding context or piecing individual pieces of a story together to complete a larger story.  This is particularly important in rapidly developing situations, such as the Japan Tsunami, a California wildfire, or other crisis.

NOTE:  Nearly every news outlet supporting citizen journalism input also includes a disclaimer recommending no person put themselves into “harm’s way” to provide video or photo records of an event.

Journalism Becomes a Source of “What We Don’t Know”

As citizen journalism continues to supplement traditional media, Jarvis continued discussing the idea of news changing from a an idea of presenting “what we do know” about an event or story, to identifying “what we don’t know.”  That is a difficult idea to fully comprehend.  However when we are able to consider the immediacy of news sources, it is very exciting.

For example, as I sit in Montreal writing a story about the earthquake in Sendai, I know that many people in Japan still have access to the Internet, have cameras, and are constantly monitoring social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter.  There is a very good chance if I desire information on a specific city, or recovery event occurring within a city, there will be somebody in that location who can provide the information or photos needed to complete my story.  I may never meet that source, and may only be able to send an email message in thanks (in addition to citing their contribution in the story), but the source (or sources) is now available to me within minutes from virtually anywhere in the world.

In an event as large as the Sendai tsunami, even an outlet such as CNN with two or three on-the-scene reporters can only cover a small fraction of the entire magnitude of the incident.  To get the full picture, having dozens or hundreds of contributing citizen journalists will not only help interested viewers around the world gain access to a more complete picture of the event, but also when necessary provide an unfiltered view of an event.

YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Other Neutral Archives

The real value of video, photo, and textual records of an event may be in the raw form it is recorded.  While we expect a news media source, whether a newspaper, magazine, or television news program to provide a factual report on an event, it is not a guarantee.  Any person who has traveled around the world, watching news programs sourced in many different countries, it is very clear each news source has a slightly different presentation of the same event or story.

If you watch CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, CCTV (China), NHK (Japan), or France 2, or Fox News, you will definitely get 7 different representations of the same story.  In this case citizens loading their raw videos or photos to a neutral archive will provide a view into an event without the fear of government spin or propaganda, nor newscasters adding their own editorial or politically motivated analysis.

The Future of News

While not promoting the idea of encouraging the average citizen to become a war correspondent, being equipped with a recording device does give each citizen the ability to record a snapshot of time and event.  Whether it is providing supplemental materials to a news outlet, or providing real-time information to emergency service personnel, citizens recording events are here to stay.  At some point governments and others attempting to “spin” facts in their interest or favor will lose their influence due to the ability to archive raw recordings of events within the global Internet “cloud.”

After spending a morning looking through the raw tsunami and earthquake video uploaded to YouTube, it is clear traditional news media and journalists could never provide the level of un-edited footage available through the Internet.  We will still watch CNN (and other stations) to learn more of the big picture, but it is clear the future will have that big picture produced through the efforts of individual citizens, at a level much higher than we have been exposed to in the past.


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More Stories By John Savageau

John Savageau is a life long telecom and Internet geek, with a deep interest in the environment and all things green. Whether drilling into the technology of human communications, cloud computing, or describing a blue whale off Catalina Island, Savageau will try to present complex ideas in terms that are easily appreciated and understood.

Savageau is currently focusing efforts on data center consolidation strategies, enterprise architectures, and cloud computing migration planning in developing countries, including Azerbaijan, The Philippines, Palestine, Indonesia, Moldova, Egypt, and Vietnam.

John Savageau is President of Pacific-Tier Communications dividing time between Honolulu and Burbank, California.

A former career US Air Force officer, Savageau graduated with a Master of Science degree in Operations Management from the University of Arkansas and also received Bachelor of Arts degrees in Asian Studies and Information Systems Management from the University of Maryland.

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