It’s tempting to consider “news” as a factual, unbiassed account of real-world events but “news” is a manufactured product much like any other. It exists, is produced and promulgated within particular frameworks, the structure of which has an effect on the relationship that the product bears to the actuality – itself a slippery concept since it is experienced through the subjective perceptions of individuals, each of whom bring their own history to bear on events.
Citizen journalism (CJ hereafter) isn’t new; the Bible is full of amateur reporters, none of whom had any periodical affiliations but who still managed to author some influential accounts of contemporary affairs. Exposing abuses of power was a popular pursuit at the time, witness Matthew 20:25-27
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Which acknowledges a view popular among journalists that the those who aspire to be politicians are the very people who should be prevented from achieving their aims.
But in the age of the cellphone video, instances of abuse of power and authority are routinely dissembled on social media, very often featuring police activity. In April 2017 in Gwinnett County, Atlanta Georgia, Demetrius Bryan Hollins was assaulted by a police officer. Video taken by a passerby CJ shows the officer stamping on Hollins’ head repeatedly in the course of the arrest. Such assaults are depressingly common in the USA and CJ evidence often appears on social media. [Source: New York Post. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from Web site: http://nypost.com/2017/04/13/police-video-shows-georgia-cop-stomping-on-black-mans-head/]
Imagery sourced from members of the public has implied authenticity – that the individual happened to be in the right place at the right time, that the document was not pre planned and that the very amateurishness of the material (handheld, blurred, grainy) confers veracity. But there are problems with this.
The simple presence of the CJ news gatherer may influence events, precipitating actions which would not have otherwise occurred; The motivation of the news source may not be entirely impartial, eg footage from animal rights protestors; The source may not only influence but actually orchestrate events; People (such as protestors) may be encouraged to behave differently in the presence of cameras. Susan Sontag observes:
“Like sexual voyeurism, [taking photographs] is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging what is going on to keep happening” Sontag – On Photography
Now that the means of both production and distribution are cheap, accessible and rapid, material can be available worldwide in a matter of hours in a ‘viral’ transmission without the kind of editing and fact-checking which reputable news organisations run as a matter of course.
Despite the risks involved in using MOP (member of the public) material most organisations are keen to consider it for inclusion in their programming and actively encourage submissions via dedicated websites and email contacts.
In a former life I worked on a TV news crew in London covering mainly political and topical stories for BBC, CH4, Reuters and ITV amongst others. One aspect which never failed to strike me was the shear disposibility of news; material which was considered vital at 9am was often irrelevant by noon.
The editorial process which decides on what material to use and what to discard is driven by a number of factors including the political leanings of the network or publisher, the ‘competition’ (what other outlets are running), ethical considerations and the sensibilities of the viewers (Spanish TV, for example, is happy to run footage of accidents which UK networks would consider too distressing)