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.

Now, about holding those horses.

The first thing I noticed this morning was that the BBC was the only Web site that featured contributions from its readers. (Please correct me if I missed something. I wasn't able to visit the entire Internet on just two cups of coffee.) There is a photo gallery with 12 images, all of which were on the Web site not long after the incidents yesterday. There also is a series of eyewitness accounts.

I checked around on other U.K. news sites and came up empty-handed.

What does this mean? I would hesitate to say that the citizen journalism revolution has come and gone. Long-term trends such as this one go through fits and starts, but predicting where it's going or writing its epitaph would require an ability akin to watching the hour hand move on a clock.

The relative lack of citizen journalism on the Web sites I visited yesterday and today indicates a paucity of good material driven by, in its turn, a paucity of compelling news (at least in comparison to July 7). Citizen journalism passed its first breaking news test when the first London bombings occurred (The tsunami and various hurricanes notwithstanding, as I noted that much of that was an aggregation of raw data to be grappled with rather than digested like news). And I suspect that the next time that big news breaks, people will be there with their camera phones and their urge to hit the keyboard. When that happens, the editors of the world's news Web sites will be there to catch it.

But first, the event in question has to warrant the coverage. That's news judgment, and it seems from my cursory morning surf that professional journalists -- the editors, bloggers, reporters and shutterbugs -- exercised it correctly yesterday when they chose not to go overboard with reports and images from citizen journalists in the field.

Grand Theft Oh-Come-On

I was so happy to see this headline in today's Austin American-Statesman: "Furor over sex scene has some gamers yawning." I'm not even a gamer and I'm yawning. The furor in question, as if you could have avoided this, is the hidden sex scene in the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

It's the kind of story that scores big headlines once the spate of summer shark attacks subsides for a few weeks. Parents, Hillary Clinton and all sorts of other upstanding folks are up in arms over a hidden sex scene in the game.

The scene, as many news services have reported, was discovered by Dutch game-player Patrick Wildenborg who, naturally, told people about it. The Entertainment Software Rating Board reclassified it as an "Adults Only" title, and Best Buy and Wal-Mart pulled it from their shelves. I should look on the bright side; I'd rather have them distracted over this than whether to confiscate "Catcher in the Rye" and "Huckleberry Finn" from school library shelves.

As always, we're way behind the kids, as the Statesman reported: "'I don't care because I already have it,'" Eric Salgado, 15, said while visiting an Electronics Boutique store at Barton Creek Square. Salgado said that it is his favorite game and that the adult content of the series 'is not that bad.'"

What is infuriating is that Take-Two Interactive Software, which released the game, at first denied that the scene existed. Come on, guys. The other item in the Statesman article that I found a bit depressing was this comment from 17-year-old Antonio Briscoe: "You get to see how things are in real life." In "GTA: San Andreas?"

The New York Times made an important point about the game in its editorial section today, though I am still smarting over the fact that this topic edged out so many other items of real consequence around the world:

"A game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a lot to tell us, most of it unpalatable, about how American culture looks through certain eyes. But so does the reaction to this modification and the scenes it exposes. As always in America, sex and nudity create the scandals, not systemic violence. Without Mr. Wildenborg's mod, all you could do in the fictional territory of San Andreas was engage in explicitly sociopathic - not to say psychopathic - criminality. With his mod, you get all that and a little virtual sex as well."

Anything for a Buck

Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless are charging cell-phone customers for messages that they don't want, according to a complaint filed by the Utility Consumers' Action Network with the California Public Utilities Commission, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

"Sprint is charging its customers for text messages sent by Sprint touting its services, said Michael Shames, executive director of the consumer group. When customers complained about charges for Sprint's advertising, the company refused to put those customers on a 'do-not-spam' list, he said. Instead, he said, the customers were only given the option to disable their phone from receiving any text messages," the Journal wrote. "Cingular has been violating current state law both by refusing to remove charges for unwanted text messages and ringtones sent by other companies and by not investigating the problem, Mr. Shames said."

Sprint and Cingular told the Journal that they have not seen the complaints. Yeah, that old story.

The New York Post carried a similar story, reporting that New York City sued Nextel, Sprint and T-Mobile for allegedly running deceptive advertising. Here's Sprint's, according to the Post: "Sprint vows, 'Nationwide long distance included. EVERY MINUTE, EVERY DAY' -- but a footnote cites 'an additional $0.25 per minute for long distance.'"

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