Cell-phone footage blurs line between witness, journalist


Trusting unknown sources, media could be burned

The massacre at Virginia Tech was brought most vividly to life Monday by the jumpy, low-resolution footage shot by Jamal Albarghouti, a quick-thinking engineering student who saw police officers drawing their guns, heard gunfire and captured it on his phone's tiny camera.

The 41-second video, which Albarghouti swiftly e-mailed to CNN, was the world's initial glimpse of the mayhem on the Blacksburg, Va., campus. It was soon followed by a barrage of blog postings and Facebook and MySpace entries about the killings that flowed from the university -- sending a clear message to the conventional news media that "citizen journalists" have become an irrevocable feature of the landscape.

Later that day, Albarghouti himself was on the air, holding a microphone and discussing the shootings with newsman Wolf Blitzer, to all appearances a professional reporter providing a dispatch from the scene.

While that might be an extreme example of citizen journalism at work, it spurred questions as to whether the traditional role of the journalist as "gatekeeper" -- a filter that normally chooses only verifiable information from known sources -- is under threat now that almost anyone can have a place at the table.

"We've always had citizen journalists, only we used to call them 'witnesses,'" said Matthew T. Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an education and research organization. "But apparently, when you give a witness a cell-phone camera, they immediately become a cub reporter."

The events in Virginia also have raised questions about the practice by television stations and networks of asking for video footage from whoever has any, without necessarily making sure the source is credible. Those doubts were also relevant to the many cases of professional journalists tapping into local blogs in Blacksburg and onto social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to gather information and commentary about the shootings.

Two days later, the release by NBC News of a lengthy manifesto by the Blacksburg gunman, complete with video and photos, prompted criticism that the network's function as gatekeeper of the news had failed it just when it was needed most. In that view, the release of the material -- and subsequent publication of the man's picture on front pages around the world, including that of The Sun -- only served to give a deeply disturbed killer the attention he so evidently craved.

To many, the buck stops with the mainstream media.

"We cannot afford to be a society which depends on amateurs and self-designated commentators to fairly report the news," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy (The New Press, 2007).

"Professional journalism is more important than ever in an era where anyone can be a spinmeister who has a blog and video-enabled cell phone. We need people who can dig up the real facts. These must be the same people who have the ability to keep on the story -- helping us understand why it happened in the first place."

Robert M. Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the media's gatekeeper role is "just as important as it's always been."

"Clearly, there are more ways for information to get to the public, and non-journalists can send out on the Internet quickly and extensively," he said, "but journalists and news organizations decide what information goes in news stories that are still widely read and listened to, and in verifying that information."

Steele said that, as he watched the Albarghouti video, it crossed his mind that it could be a hoax. "Video can be altered to change reality," he said. "It would have been possible for someone to add the sound of gunshots. It's possible to edit out an essential moment to, for instance, protect friends of family members. The gatekeeper still has to ask questions and vet the material."

A misnomer

In any case, Steele said, the term "citizen journalist" is a misnomer, especially when applied to Albarghouti:

"That student was not a journalist -- he was an eyewitness. The witness does not bring the same skills in observing an event, nor in reporting what took place, as a trained reporter or photojournalist would. And an eyewitness who sometimes is a participant in a story does not have the same independence as a journalist would in covering the story."

Vetting outsiders' material "will not always be foolproof," blogger Jeff Jarvis said.

Jarvis, a former reporter and editor who blogs about the news media at Buzzmachine.com, said that, if too much time is spent verifying something, "we will miss the news."

"We need to do a better job letting people know what we know and what we don't know," he said, and suggested that news anchors could say, "'This video is coming from the scene now, but it is from someone we don't know.'"

Jarvis, who directs the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, said that in the new media environment, "everyone in the audience becomes his or her own editor, judging what seems to be credible and double-checked and what does not."

"There is good news in all this," he said. "We will get more reports from more witnesses with more vantage points and we will get it quicker. That's more reporting, and that's good."

Still, in a column he posted Thursday, Jarvis wrote that the "essential infrastructure of news and media has changed forever."

"There is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone -- witnesses, criminals, victims, commenters, officials, and journalists -- can publish and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished, secured."

By the same token, he went on, "Let's not presume that we all need NBC or anyone to protect us from life as it is."

People need to understand, Jarvis wrote, that news "is no longer a pasteurized and packaged version of life, but life itself, with all its benefits and dangers."

Protect credibility

Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, which is affiliated with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said credibility is essential to a news organization, "and that means applying due diligence to material from the sources we cite and quote."

The question of whether footage or facts from citizens are inherently trustworthy should also be applied to more traditional journalistic situations, said Gillmor, a 25-year veteran of the newspaper business: "How many professional reporters ask for identification when they do the 'person on the street' interviews? Few, if any, I'd guess."

Felling, from the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said citizen journalism "can also have a darker side, when someone with an agenda decides to manufacture a story." Felling cited the case a few years ago of a San Francisco man who concocted a video in which he was ostensibly a terrorist's hostage.

"Amateur video saves time, sure, but the time you save needs to be used vetting and certifying the product," Felling said. "But all too often that time gap is ignored in the lusty pursuit of a scoop and ratings."

Stefan Dill, the Web site editor at The Santa Fe New Mexican, which uses considerable input from what he prefers to call "participatory journalists," said the more transparent and sharing media outlets are, "the more trusted -- and therefore more credible -- we actually become."

Dill said people understand that a reader's photo or video of an event "isn't purporting to be anything more than that."

"There's room for all layers of information," he said, "and we have to become comfortable with the idea of being a source and clearinghouse for all kinds of information that may matter, regardless of source."


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