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'Citizen Journalists' at the Point of Breaking News

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'Citizen Journalists' at the Point of Breaking News

Digital Life

'Citizen Journalists' at the Point of Breaking News

'Citizen Journalists' at the Point of Breaking News

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phone digital cameras, many so-called "citizen journalists" have taken compelling photos of breaking news events, such as the London subway bombings and the Air France crash in Toronto. News organizations say these people act as their eyes and ears, since "real" reporters can't be everywhere — but critics say it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt trying to get a scoop.


People didn't commonly have cameras in their cell phones three years ago. If they did, you would have seen photographs from 9/11 as you do now from breaking news events--the London transit attacks, last week's fiery plane crash in Toronto. These are increasingly coming from citizen journalists, people on the scene who snap pictures with their cell phones. The technology's so common just about anybody can take newsworthy photos. Here with a story is an actual NPR professional journalist Eric Weiner.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

A citizen journalist--or, more precisely, a citizen photojournalist--is really a fancy way of describing someone with a camera who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, that's nothing new. Remember the famous Abraham Zapruder footage of JFK's assassination in 1963? We didn't call Zapruder a citizen journalist, but that's what he was. What's new is that now everyone is like Abraham Zapruder.

Mr. KOELEMAN (Minneapolis Star Tribune): Everyone has a camera, everyone.

WEINER: That's Peter Koeleman, director of photography at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. After the July 7th London bombings, his paper ran a photo on Page 1 that was taken by a commuter with a cell phone camera. The image was grainy and slightly out of focus, but Koeleman says that didn't matter. In photography, as in real estate, location is everything.

Mr. KOELEMAN: It has such a feel to it of what people might have gone through there that I think it could put our readers right into--on that train, and that's a rare thing. It was a no-brainer to run it on the cover.

WEINER: Hundreds of such photos, all taken with cell phone cameras, were published in newspapers or posted on the Internet or broadcast on TV. News organizations aren't just accepting these photos; they're actively soliciting them. Anyone with a cell phone camera, which will soon be practically everyone, is a potential citizen journalist. And Jeff Jarvis, a media consultant and blogger, says that's a good thing.

Mr. JEFF JARVIS (Media Consultant): I think that's a wonderful thing. I think the journalists should see that as a great thing. More information, more news, more eyes on what's happening, more immediate reporting should all be good for journalism and for an informed society.

WEINER: Especially now, says Jarvis. With news organizations cutting back on staff, citizen journalists can take up the slack. But others are worried. Citizen journalists are not trained to view events skeptically and put them in context the way professional journalists are. How do news organizations know the photos are authentic and not doctored? And then there is the safety concerns.

Mr. KYLE MacRAE: You have to be very, very clear about what you're asking people to do.

WEINER: Kyle MacRae runs a British photo agency that represents citizen journalists.

Mr. MacRAE: There have been criticism here that news organizations are effectually saying, `Go out there and get the news. You be part of the news gathering organization.' And there is at least a risk that is encouraging people to, for instance, walk towards a burning building rather than run away from it in hopes of getting the picture.

WEINER: Some say that news organizations should flat out refuse to run photos where the photographer put themselves or others in danger, a policy that some find absurd.

Mr. JARVIS: We're all big boys and girls. We can make our own decisions.

WEINER: Professional journalists, says Jeff Jarvis, put their lives on the line all the time in order to get the story. Why can't citizen journalists do the same? Jarvis cites himself as an example. He happened to be in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th.

Mr. JARVIS: To this day, my wife is not happy with me that I stayed around the World Trade Center when I came into it as the first plane was hitting. I stayed there to report. Now perhaps as a family member and a father, I should have gotten the heck out, but I stayed to report. I'm no different from anybody else who can do the same thing.

WEINER: And that is something that a lot of ordinary people armed with cell phone cameras seem to instinctively understand. Take the case of the recent Air France crash in Toronto. Marc Glaser, a columnist with the Online Journalism Review, says he was amazed by the actions of one man, a bystander who witnessed the crash.

Mr. MARC GLASER (Online Journalism Review): He went into the plane and helped people get out. But the first thing he did was he shot some photos with his camera phone. That was his first reaction, and I think that's the way people are starting to live their lives. They're just photographing everything around them.

WEINER: Not only are we not surprised by photos taken inside an airplane that has crashed or a subway car that has been bombed, we have come to expect them. It is the undocumented disaster that we now find somehow strange. Eric Weiner, NPR News.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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