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Got a Camera? You, Too, Can Be A Network Reporter

CNN aired a bystander's recording of an incident last week involving a questioner of Sen. John Kerry.
CNN aired a bystander's recording of an incident last week involving a questioner of Sen. John Kerry. (Cnn)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

Clarissa Jessup was next in line to ask a question of John Kerry at the University of Florida when another student "stole the mike," she says -- and handed her his digital camera to record the scene.

"The police had already threatened me with arrest" for refusing to "shut up" and sit down as the session was winding down, says Jessup, who adds that she had never met the other student, Andrew Meyer. When Meyer launched into a diatribe, was dragged away by campus cops and subdued with a Taser gun, Jessup, 22, quickly sent the footage to CNN -- because, she says, she wanted national attention and does not like Fox News.

CNN aired the footage last Tuesday hours after receiving it (Jessup also posted it on YouTube), sparking a national debate over whether the police went too far or the journalism student got what he deserved. Without those pictures, the story would have been a mere blip.

It started with a trickle, but television news operations are now awash in video and pictures submitted by ordinary folks. The much-buzzed-about phenomenon of citizen journalism is firmly entrenched, thanks to the spread of digital and cellphone cameras and the rise of an interactive culture.

It is one sweet deal for the networks: small armies of tech-savvy volunteers in places where reporters aren't, offering their services free of charge.

"It's not that different from wanting to show your photos of a trip," says Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and blogger who has launched an online media research effort staffed entirely by volunteers. "It's a way of participating in public life. There's a very potent impulse to share what you have."

Citizen pictures are most vital when disaster strikes: hurricanes, tornadoes, the Minneapolis bridge collapse. All the networks carefully vet the material and use only a fraction of what is submitted, with far more posted on their Web sites than making it to the air.

Fox has received nearly 40,000 videos and pictures in six months under its uReport initiative. "There's something very raw and real about the pictures, because they're not highly produced," says Executive Producer Suzanne Scott. "They really make the viewer feel they're at the story." The only problem, she says, is that "spammers have figured out a way to use the uReport to send in their promos."

MSNBC's FirstPerson program has drawn 28,000 submissions since its launch in late April. "We have two-way conversations, so it's not just about us showing the news, but the community being able to share the news with us," says Gina Stikes, marketing director for MSNBC.com. "It really empowers us, and empowers them as well."

At CNN, the first cable network to launch such an effort 14 months ago, more than 60,000 videos and pictures have poured in from its "I-Reporters." The most newsworthy have involved such events as a Dallas factory fire and a New York steam pipe explosion. On the day of the Virginia Tech massacre in April, CNN paid for an exclusive deal with graduate student Jamal Albarghouti for the first shaky video taken during the shooting.

"Some folks in our industry look down their noses at it a little bit, and that's a huge mistake," says Sue Bunda, CNN's vice president for content development. "It's such a disregard for the value of our audience." She says she got the idea last year when she saw her teenage son's pride in a T-shirt from a video-sharing site -- and says CNN now sends shirts to contributors whose material is aired.

Not all pictures involve breaking news. At ABC's i-Caught site, which generated a six-episode summer series, the most popular video -- played nearly 400,000 times -- is of animal attacks at a South African safari park. MSNBC is soliciting pictures of viewers partying in Las Vegas, for example, while CNN has posted images of Coney Island attractions that could give way to redevelopment. After "NBC Nightly News" aired a series on caring for elderly parents, 6,000 people submitted material about their families.


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