Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The citizen journalist

My wife has one of the best jobs out there. She gets to teach high school students about journalism, which means that she gets to teach them about some of the most fundamental rights they have as American citizens: Those enshrined in the First Amendment. Those words are as important today as they day they were adopted on December 15, 1791:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right to the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 
The original engrossed Bill of Rights
Heady stuff. Four of those rights - religion, speech, assembly and petition - are exceptionally personal in nature. But, the press? Well, how else will you get information about what's happening in your community? Will you drive everywhere to see what's really happening?  Probably not.

Thus, the freedom of the press. Now, for nearly two centuries, the press was defined as credentialed members of the media who were knowledgeable in journalism law, practices and ethics. And, this system that public information officers and reporters worked under and established the ground rules of how we conduct ourselves.

Credentialed members of the media covering the 1972 National Conventions
Something funny happened back in the early 1990s that turned this paradigm on its head. The Internet, once solely for the use of academia, the government and other select users was made available to the public. Before you could say 'Online Shopping', the world wide web became something that everyone had to have. News agencies turned immediately to the technology and made web-based news a place where people could go first to get exactly what they needed.

If you now add the rise of cell phones sporting high-resolution cameras and internet connectivity, now you have just deputized millions of new eyes and ears out on the streets. Soon, news outlets came to understand and appreciate the immediate availability of this access to the sights and sounds of what was occurring as it unfolded. For instance, the first video images that came from Blacksburg during the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 came from a cell phone.

The first images of the Miracle on the Hudson hit the airwaves from a ferry passenger's Twitter account.

The first images of US Airways Flight 1549 from a Twitter account
Today, news agencies are actively soliciting videos and photos from citizens when they see something happening, and even offering tutorials on how to file reports from their tablets and smart phones.
CNN's iReport page with an invitation to become part of the news team
And, reporters racing to scenes are seeking out the photos, videos and other information from bystanders to help tell their stories.

A tweet from a reporter seeking information
So, what does this mean for us? Now that we are aware that anyone who shows up on a scene can serve as an impromptu reporter, we have to adjust our operations accordingly. We have to establish our perimeters to ensure that no one - credentialed media or otherwise - gets too close to dangerous scenes. We have to allow the same access to the general public as we do reporters, within reason.

And, we have to continue the discussion. After all, this is our new reality, and the rules are being written as we go.

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