Wednesday 26 May 2010

What price Citizen Journalism?

A post on Twitter yesterday yanked me back to citizen journalism, the topic of this year's Borderlines Debate, Here Comes Everyone:).

What happened was that three images tweeted by a team member of Just Do It, (documentary in the making about the climate camps) were appropriated by the Daily Mail without any form of payment or accreditation. The photos showed queues of voters being turned away from their polling station in Dalston on election night.

Mindful of Christian (Documentally) Payne's advice at Here Comes Everyone:

Emily James, one of the climate camp speakers at the event, invoiced the Mail's Picture Editor only to receive a predictably evasive rebuttal. Read the full background and correspondence here.

It comes down to value. On the ground, Just Do It had caught something of the moment that traditional reporting mechanisms had failed to capture on the Mail's behalf. Nevertheless, using the well-worn amateur/professional yardstick, the paper is seeking to DE-value the pictures by claiming that they are in the public domain.

Citizen journalism coexists. Indeed the public is encouraged to feed old school print and broadcast media with photos and mobile phone footage of breaking events. But the value balance remains precarious; CJ also represents a challenge and threat to the way things have always been done.

When citizen journalism picks up on events that would normally be suppressed - and the film Burma VJ is moving and overwhelming testimony to that - it is priceless, subversive. No-one would dispute that.

On the other hand, with the means to record anything cheaply and well at our fingertips there's also a lot of blather out there. A question from floor during the Here Comes Everyone debate made the point that Christian Payne is special (in terms of talent, facility, initiative), a specialist, if you like, but many who tote cameras and other technology are not. How can we find our way through a sea of voices and distractions?

Back in the '80s I worked on a documentary for Channel 4 about the Super 8 film format. It explored the way home movie cameras were being used for purposes other than those they had been designed for.

One of the people we interviewed was Gwynne Roberts a freelance war reporter who took Super 8 cameras with him on missions to Kurdistan precisely because of what he called "their Mickey Mouse quality". He, a professional journalist for ITN, The Sunday Times and others, went undercover as an amateur to appear harmless, to slip through defences. Later he became one of the few people to interview Osama Bin Laden (Dispatches: The Saudi Tapes).

We also featured a Bolivian organisation that had gone into the country's remote Altiplano region to enable peasants who had never seen or even conceived of film in their lives to make a movie about how a land dispute by their community had been suppressed by the military. Their method was to train them, to show what had been done before and give people the means and the expertise to tell their own story. And this is the key.

The immediacy of being in a certain place at a particular moment is what we buy into with citizen journalism. That sense of authenticity can, however,  be replicated as a style. This is something we need to be aware of, both as media-makers and media-consumers.

The other film that made up part of Here Comes Everyone was The Yes Men Fix the World was all to do with hoaxes, the fact that two self-styled jokers in cheap suits managed to swipe 2 billion dollars off the market price of a multinational company by going on to News 24 and lying (semi-convincingly).

And elsewhere at Borderlines Chris Atkins's Starsuckers revealed the gullibility not just of the public but of a venal media industry, greedy for sensationalism.

So the moral seems to be:
Check the facts.
Keep your wits about you.
Get media-literate
Just do it!

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