When “we are the media,” how does it change us or society?

The changes that smartphones with camera and an Internet connection are wreaking in society have been both thoughtfully reported upon, relentlessly evangelized and ruthlessly derided, depending upon the angle or intent of the commentator.

The past days will occupy a few lines in the history books. Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a milestone healthcare bill. And earlier in the week, a soldier killed fellow servicemen and women at Fort Hood.

Today, Paul Carr wrote that “citizen journalists can’t handle the truth at TechCrunch.

I agreed with him on a few things. The video from “This American Life” (below) that Carr embedded was deeply affecting on this point, in terms of what becoming an observer can do to our involvement in what we are filming.

Changing an avatar to green or changing a location to Tehran did not, despite good intentions, prove to substantively help students escape repression. I gather from reading accounts from journalists that the solidarity demonstrated by doing so was both noticed and appreciated there. And there was a tipping point in terms of the use of the platform to bring attention to a political cause.

Where I was left frustrated is in Carr’s suggestion that those who are watching should be doing something more, whether in the hospital or, in the case of Neda, on the streets of Tehran, instead of documenting events with the digital tools at hand.

Mathew Ingram posted a thoughtful response about this notion on his blog, “Citizen Journalism: I’ll take it, flaws and all.” David Quigg wrote   a thoughtful reply to Carr’s post as well. Dave Winer was less charitable.

I found the example of Neda to be unworthy of the point I think Carr was trying to make.

It also brushed off two key factors: the effect that the release of that video had in revealing the death of a protester and that of the bullet’s impact itself on her heart.

As Suw Charman-Anderson pointed out in her detailed critique and debunking of Carr’s post, “Killing Strawmen,” (which I won’t repeat here), there was a doctor on-site, who was unable to do anything because of the massive trauma to her chest.

In my limited experience, you provide the standard of care to which you are certified and are able to deliver, ceding primary responsibility to others more able as they arrive on scene. As an EMT couldn’t do much more, for instance, than to gauge consciousness, stanch bleeding, stabilize injuries, provide oxygen and transport people. Your choices must change if someone is in the wilderness but in most scenarios, that’s accurate. Paramedics, nurses, doctors and surgeons each have progressively more expertise and responsibility.

In all of that, communication with the nearest hospital and ER docs available is crucial. Transferring information to both medical professionals and law enforcement is something a bystander can and should do.

And to some extent, communication and documentation is precisely what a member of the public equipped with a cameraphone can contribute, despite the vigor with which Carr has chosen to deride that role.

I don’t doubt that seasoned correspondents, armed with an understanding of the ethics and laws that pertain to reporting, are needed to convey information from the battlefield or to analyze the meaning of the trends that confront us.

In fact, Brock Meeks, one such trusted newsman, made a comment on my post about Twitter lists that emphasized just how important getting the facts right is to both the audience and media.

I was left wondering about other situations where the “citizen journalists” Carr derides are providing an important function in the newsgathering ecosystem, whether in reporting national disasters, disease, voting irregularities or consumer sentiment.

A more calm approach might consider whether models of “hyperlocal” journalism that marry traditional media to online platforms might have a chance of success.

My intention is not to suggest that observers couldn’t play a useful role in a crisis. It was to say that when there are qualified staff on scene, documenting what is happening in the absence of mainstream journalists may be useful for those that follow – including news outlets that may use video or audio gleaned on site.

I agree with Paul that running images shouldn’t occur without a full understanding of the ethics or privacy rights involved.

Unfortunately, many tabloids have shown a poor grasp of either historically.

The fact that technology changes behavior doesn’t make it inherently bad. We’re all struggling to make sense of exactly what living in a modern panopticon created by one another will mean. It changes news, our conception of privacy, and even our perception of self.

The traits for good character and decency that the Greeks described millennia ago remain applicable, however, just as the ethics taught in journalism schools pertain to modern reporters armed with Flip cams, iPhones and a direct line to YouTube.

There will continue to be moments when war correspondents are confronted what choices about how covering conflict, versus participating in it, will mean.

Similarly, people driving by an accident will need to be thoughtful about “playing paparrazzi” as opposed to making sure that those involved are receiving the aid they need. Anyone who has a conflict about whether to “tweet or treat” might to do well to consider what basic human decency means to them, personally.

Does an event need to be documented? Or does calling 911 and then moving to help trump rendering assistance?

Citizens are looking for truth, honesty and facts, where ever we can find them.  That need was frequently the subject of discussion during Public Media Camp, after which I wrote that “2009 is the year of We, the Media.”

Perhaps, as news organizations and citizens alike contribute to the body of knowledge online, a new model for collaborative journalism will emerge that serves each better.

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4 Comments

Filed under blogging, journalism, social media, technology, Twitter, video

4 responses to “When “we are the media,” how does it change us or society?

  1. Pingback: Citizen journalism: I’ll take it, flaws and all

  2. Steven Mandzik

    Random rant triggered by ur comment on Iran:

    @robotchampion: I’m so tired of everyone saying green avatars had no effect on events in Iran How do u know? Did the mullah tell u? How do u measure impact?

  3. Pingback: Tweetlinks, 11-09-09 [A Blog Around The Clock] « Technology Blogs

  4. Pingback: Is journalism going through its own Reformation? « digiphile

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