Editing Citizen Journalism

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005; 9:30 AM

The ladies and gentlemen of the press are making plenty of hay over "citizen journalism" these days, hyping non-journalists' use of portable technology and the Web to help "cover" news stories.

But maybe it's time to hold on to our horses before we declare a new age of multi-participant journalism.

I came to this conclusion after my editor and I followed yesterday's coverage of the second round of bombings on the London Underground and today's developing story about the man London police shot dead at the Stockwell tube station.

Unlike the July 7 attacks in which 52 people and four suicide bombers died, Thursday's action produced -- thankfully -- just one confirmed injury and no deaths. That, combined with what apparently were a series of small explosions and at least one dud backpack, produced another round of cell-phone photos and eyewitness accounts.

So can you blame the amateur photographers and writers if their records of the incident were not quite as compelling as they were two weeks ago? You can if you're Vincent Maher.

A new media lecturer at South Africa's Rhodes University School of Journalism & Media Studies, Maher told Steve Outing, a contributor to the Poynter Institute's E-Media Tidbits journalism forum, that he felt yesterday's citizen coverage was a bit tepid.

Here's an excerpt of an e-mail Maher wrote to Outing: "I was forced to conclude that, while waiting and watching what the bloggers were up to, I saw precious little actual citizen journalism. ... All I saw was a bunch of armchair critics and, frankly, bland repetition. I was hoping to find, easily, some pics taken by people from their phones and posted as close to live as possible." (Maher's comment appears on his blog as well.)

Bland repetition. It didn't take long for citizen journalism to garner the type of critiques often reserved for the mainstream media.

Maher notes this as well: "I find it very depressing, as a teacher of this post-it NOW culture, that the traditional media beat the citizens considering that: a) the citizens were actually there whereas the traditional media had to go there reactively, b) somewhere nearby someone must have had the capability to send a pic to a moblog, and c) the blog postings I tracked on Technorati simply regurgitated the traditional media message."

In his E-Media Tidbits posting, Outing said he didn't plan to get too distressed about this, despite Maher's conclusion that the ultimate in freelance reporting still has a long way to go. I don't see why we should either.

I also spent time yesterday cruising the Web, looking at photos taken by people on the street as well as those taken by photographers working for Getty, Reuters, PA and others. Bottom line? They look about the same. Some are very good from a technical perspective, and some manage to convey some tension and excitement. But in the end, they're not destined for the history books.

And why should they be? Citizen journalism might be all about being there for the breaking news, but it can't magically enliven things. If the event is relatively low-key, the photos will be as well. Denver Post editor Todd Engdahl noted that in his comment on the forum: "Less happened, less to see, less to shoot with a cell phone, less to report. Less traumatic." And there it is.

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