Landmark moments in citizen journalism

Depending on whom you ask, citizen journalism is either pushing journalism forward or is unaccountable vigilantism. Either way, it is shaping the way we consume our news.

Surely ordinary citizens were documenting and discussing news events before the advent of the internet but what separates citizen journalism from pure observation is the use of the net as an avenue to either aid or circumvent traditional media outlets and spread the news independently. Average Joes can take their own photos, record their own video and recount a story through blogs or other social media, often more quickly than a media organization can begin to report and in a more organic way than is usually presented by mainstream media.

The following is a timeline of events in which ordinary citizens shaped the news, followed by an analog description of each landmark moment.

Rathergate, September 8, 2004

A common complaint about mainstream media is that readers/viewers are expected to believe everything they are told without verifying information for themselves. After Dan Rather presented supposedly authenticated documents on 60 Minutes that impugned President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, many bloggers weren’t buying it. Average Joes pointed out that the purportedly circa 1973 typewritten memos that were presented on CBS were likely written in a modern, computer-based font. The claims of authenticity were later retracted and several of those involved with the story were fired.

Indian Ocean tsunami, December 26, 2004

The coverage of the deadly tsunami that rocked Southeast Asia was remarkable not only for its images of the devastation captured by those in affected areas, but also for social media’s role in providing relief during the aftermath. Tourists who otherwise would have been capturing the beauty of area beaches instead captured the tsunami as it landed, providing firsthand accounts that were circulated around the globe. Blogs and groups on social networks like Facebook were also quickly established to provide information to both victims and the rest of the world.

London 7/7 Tube bombings, July 7, 2005

News of the bombing that killed 52 people and injured more than 770 was heightened by videos and photos taken with cell phones by passengers aboard the train during the attacks. Usually traditional news stories are shot from behind the police tape, often with a wide shot that doesn’t reveal the telling details of the situation. But the user submitted photos and video that appeared shortly after the explosions were vividly real and told the story of the crime in a way traditional media never could.

Virginia Tech massacre, April 16, 2007

The cell phone video shot by Virginia Tech student Jamal Albarghouti was not only an alarming encapsulation of the shooting that left 32 dead and 23 wounded, it was also viewed by millions of people on CNN and on YouTube. News of the shooting was disseminated first through text messages and blogs to those who were unaware about what was happening on campus. Some questioned whether the student-shot video was actually journalism, but as we’ve seen from previous examples, despite its amateurish nature it no doubt contributed to how others received the story.

Protests in Burma, Fall 2007

In the face of the government’s violent reaction to anti-government protests, many Burmese turned to the internet to alert the world to the violence occurring in the remote country. Grainy video and photos shot on mobile phones were circulated around the world and the country’s bloggers posted first and second hand accounts of the bloody struggle. The Burmese government worked quickly to shut down internet access, but not before the world was exposed to the tragic events.

Mumbai attacks, November 26-29, 2008

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai and the subsequent reports on Twitter, Flickr and elsewhere raised ethical questions: do such immediate reports actually endanger the lives of others? Some of the thought confirmed attack sites were later revealed to be unconfirmed rumors and TV networks were condemned for revealing the possible location of those refugees still in harm’s way.

California fires, 2007

Local and national TV stations and newspapers did an adequate job of covering the destructive fires that blackened much of California, but it was the citizen journalists who uploaded video to YouTube, posted Twitter updates and submitted amateur media to news stations that really provided the up-to-the-minute coverage many fire victims were so desperately seeking.

Mayhill Fowler, 2008

Two of the biggest gotcha quotes of the 2008 U.S. presidential election season — Obama’s reference to “bitter” small-town Americans who “cling
to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” and Bill Clinton’s reaction to Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum, calling him “slimy” and “dishonest” were documented by an online journalist with no ties to a mainstream news organization. Mayhill Fowler, a citizen journalist reporting for the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus news project, captured the off-the-cuff moments with a handheld recorder and a little persistence.

Daily Kos polling, 2008

Every election season there are a number of polls that aim predict the outcome of every imaginable political race. Superblogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga decided he wanted his own. Kos set out to create nonpartisan polls powered by the polling firm Research 2000, inherently shirking mainstream media. In an ironic twist, the mainstream media many times made reference to the Daily Kos alongside long established polls.

Oscar Grant, January 1, 2009

News of the New Years Day shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a BART police officer ignited a community after the dramatic video captured by witnesses was posted to YouTube. Soon thereafter local news stations were using the amateur footage when no other video was available. Subsequent protests — some peaceful, some violent — were photographed and posted to Flickr, giving the world insight on what otherwise may have been a local story.

Hudson River plane crash, January 15, 2009

When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River it was for some news organizations the first mention of Twitter, or more specifically Janis Kruns’ tweet and photo of the 155 passengers being rescued from the downed aircraft. While traditional news orgs quickly picked up the story, they still lagged behind those citizens empowered by social media who broke the story first.

A big thank you to the Twitterverse for helping craft this post. For more on the history of citizen journalism, check out this collection of Nieman Lab reports. Timeline created with Dipity; find out more about the timeline creator here.

Also on 10,000 Words:

Screw the system. Publish your own content!
Why aren’t all journalists “citizen” journalists?
Citizen Journalism: Speak up and get paid for it