At an age where anybody can take pictures and videos and everybody, with the sole global exception of my mother, can upload and broadcast materials from their own living room (or indeed, bedroom), to anybody who cares to watch, the borders between journalists and sources tend to blur. This subject has been addressed here before, but recent events have brought it back to our attention.
The Arab Spring provided a vast platform for citizen’s journalism, especially in Egypt, where despite massive media presence, there was a hunger for information from the ground – from the sitdowns at Tahrir Square to localised events that could only be caught on an activist’s camera.
The appetite for citizen-produced material from Syria derived from simpler realities. Foreign journalists simply can not stay in Syria for long or operate there freely. They often have to rely on photos, snippets, videos and bits of information recorded at great personal risk by local sources. This information, either delivered in person or posted via social media or other online vehicles, fed quite a few reports on global media outlets.
The contribution of such evidence to the atrocities taking place in Syria is immense, and the people who put their lives on the line capturing and posting such proof deserve our admiration. They also deserve to be paid for the fruit of their efforts if it gets used by established media. But all this does not make them, necessarily, journalists. This, of course, does not apply only to “citizen journalists” in Egypt or Syria, but everywhere. They are sources, eyewitnesses, commentators; they are essential for journalism to take place, but in order for their contributions to turn into journalism, two things need to be brought forward, verification and context.
In the last few months there have been more and more complaints from journalists regarding “forged” or “biased” visual and textual material posted online. Pictures said to have been taken in Homs were in fact taken elsewhere in Syria. Edited videos from different places in the world make stories seem different to what they are; governments and other interested bodies are paying for “citizen journalists” to post material. Many activists engage in journalism, and while all journalists are also citizens who have the right to take a stand on their country’s future, their double role as journalists and activists sometimes blurs the lines between the two. Naturally, the actions of some should not implicate all. The problem in the concept of ‘citizen journalism’ is not in the good or bad intentions of its practitioners, but in the scrutiny to which their materials are subjected to before being aired.
More and more evidence indicates Saudi funding for Syrian activists releasing information. Does it make this information wrong? Certainly not, but transparency is of the essence and verification is vital. Activists have the right to have their say as much as governments, but knowing where a piece of information originates from is necessary in the quest to validate it. More and more NGOs are becoming news providers, relying on sources on the ground. Many of them mean well. Others intentions are blurry. But there are ways to add this information up, follow it through, cross source and get to the facts. This is the journalist’s job, as it always has been.
Established media has its own mechanisms of verification and it is exposed to public review and to libel suits. This does not necessarily prevent cases of severe misconduct such as that being gradually revealed in the News International scandal. But still, the rules of professional behavior are set, the ethos is there and breaking it has consequences. Newspapers, websites and broadcasters’ credibility are their main assets, and they have a vested interest in protecting that by meeting their obligations when it comes to verifying materials and putting them in context.
At the same time, it is private people around the world who in recent years have been constantly delivering immensely important untold stories from under-covered corners of the world, or from the under-covered corners of well covered stories. Human rights organisations giving cameras to people around the world made a vital contribution which enabled the voiceless to be heard, seen and to expose wrongs committed against them. Individuals taking charge of documenting their own stories found a way around the established news agenda straight to the hearts and minds of world public opinion, sometimes harnessing masses around the world to demand change. Yet, there’s a line between participation in the international information free-market, and journalism.
New kind of services in the media market are presenting an interesting attempt to bridge the gap. Storyful.com offers verification services by a team of professional journalists, and explain their ethos and modus operandi in their interesting blog at http://blog.storyful.com/
Is this the future of journalism? Teams of professionals picking up the clues and evidence spread around the World Wide Web by global citizens? That’s a challenging prospect for everybody involved in journalism. The old way of professionals sniffing at ‘amateurs’ is not going to cut it. Especially with 10 million active Twitter accounts in the UK alone today and counting. We should embrace the wealth of information streaming constantly our way, but it is our job, as ever, to provide the mechanisms for creating real journalism out of it. Picking the fresh trail, following it to its sources, verifying it and giving it context. In this sense, all is new, yet nothing is new, under the sun.
What do you think? Share your thoughts with our community.
By: Daphna Baram and Mais Al-Baya’a.