BitDepth 577 - May 22

Citizen media is changing the way we see reporting and think about reality...
Understanding citizen media

Under the caption "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon" this photo won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969. The photo would change the public opinion of the war in Vietnam, make a star of Eddie Adams, the photographer and essentially ruin the life of Loan, who would move to the US, open a pizza restaurant and then close it after his past was made public.
Adams eventually came to regret having made the photo, apologizing to Loan and writing, "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn't say was, What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?
How do you know you wouldn't have pulled the trigger yourself?"

A few weeks ago, this column weighed in on the Akon & Danah dance phenomenon and focused on the notion of "citizen journalism," the rapid escalation in news coverage by people on the street with cell phones capable of capturing digital video and stills.
Since then, Akon has been pretty much forced to apologise for his performance at Club Zen after paying a hefty price in lost sponsorships for his ill-advised wine on underaged booty.
Then Machel Montano became embroiled in a fracas at Johnny Soong's club of increasing ill-repute which also featured running video of what was largely incomprehensible chaos.

Last week TV6 aired grainy black and white video of a gangland execution said to have taken place on a local street corner. The astonishing footage bore an uncanny resemblance to a photo by photojournalist Eddie Adams who captured a similar "moment of death" image of an execution in Vietnam.
A Guardian editorial followed the next day, admonishing TV6 for its poor judgement in airing the clip. On occasion, I am called on to craft the Guardian's opinion, but I do not always share that opinion, and this is one of those times.

Head in a box
Several years ago, I was on the picture desk of the Express when I faced a difficult decision about the front page photo. It was the infamous "head in a whiskey box" image and it was one of the rare occasions when I drew the line on an editor about a picture choice. The Express did not run the photo, but Newsday did, selling out the next day and solidifying its new positioning as the "bad news" paper.
I've never regretted making that call, and if I see a clear difference between that image and the video of the shooting, it is because one tells me something that I can completely understand in words and the other shows me something I cannot imagine.

Tell me that a head was found in a whiskey box and I can envision it pretty clearly. Anything beyond that is voyeurism, the sort of thing that makes people slow down near a traffic jam, first to make sure it isn't someone they know and then to look for any stray bloody limbs that might be lying around.
Show me a man being killed in cold blood in this country, kneeling submissively as a bullet tears through his skull and the importance of that visual skyrockets, not just as a record of a particular act at a place and time, but as a chilling reality check of what all those police statistics really mean.

More public photos to come
We will see more of this type of thing, not less. Just a few days after the Guardian's editorial admonishing, the paper ran a stunning photo by Acklima Mohammed on page five. The picture showed Lester Davis with paint spatters all around him spreadeagled on the roof of the car that knocked him off the scaffolding he was working on.
This is a striking example of the old photojournalist's rule, "f8 and be there." Mohammed, who works as an executive at the Guardian's South office took the photos with a point and shoot camera and would probably have earned the front page if nine suspects hadn't been charged on the same day for the kidnapping and murder of Vindra Naipaul-Coolman.
Akon did his dirty dance in front of dozens of camera phones and it's fair to say that very little will happen in the world far from the glass eye of an image capturing device.

Verify and confirm
The challenge for media is in harnessing the potential of citizen journalism and extending a role as gatekeepers of the principles of news into a publishing and broadcast space that is far larger than the news pages or a broadcast news time slot.
Long before that clip got to TV6, I'd be willing to bet that it had been sent to several other cellphones. There's an e-mail circulating with several images of Akon's victim culled from personal page pictures and captures from the nightclub floor.
Each medium has its own credibility, but only journalists have a responsibility to accurately present the best understanding of truth available.

The Poynter Institute has an interesting article on citizen journalism that lists the ways that media houses can engage the input of their readership and embrace the contributions of a vast resource of potential news gatherers.
But the author, Steve Outing, doesn't go far enough. Media houses have to define a space to consider and investigate, if not always celebrate, the outpouring of information that will increasingly flood people's e-mail in-boxes, get shared virally on cellphones and make their way through alternate digital routes into the public consciousness.

If we don't do this, some entrepreneur will take up the challenge, creating an edited YouTube, and bypassing traditional media houses and newsworkers will find their work doubled as they will now find themselves both reporting the news and debunking material from unaccredited sources. Either way, the price of ignoring this parallel conduit of information will be steep.
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