Citizen Journalism: Dead; Citizen History: Alive by Ron Steinman

Citizen Journalism: Dead. Citizen History: Alive by Ron Steinman

Here are a few names in the news that we would not have known unless people pointed a cell phone in their direction, often during an altercation with the police. Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri. Tamir Rice, Cleveland, Ohio. Ezeil Ford, Los Angeles, California. Freddie Gray, Baltimore, Maryland. Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York. The Dallas, Texas pool party. Often posted on YouTube, turned over to public authorities or to authentic news outlets, we would be in the dark unless someone turned on his or her phone camera.

These names and events exist outside the realm of citizen journalism and for good reason. Citizen journalism, once considered the savior of journalism in the new digital world of reporting, is dead. But these names are forever in our memory. Citizen curiosity, in the form of pointing and shooting a cellphone to take video, is creating history instead. The death of citizen journalism has been quiet, disappearing without fanfare. Just as well. Journalism takes conscious use of taught skills about technique, philosophy, morality, right and wrong, ethics, patience and time. In journalism, rushing to judgment usually means failure. Consider, too, that most “citizens,” read normal people, if you like, lack all of the above skills, especially patience when it come to developing a story that people will understand, read or watch on any Website or screen. Journalists do not always have fun when covering a story. That is how it should be. So, citizen journalism died. It proved too hard for the uncommitted. And that is not bad.

It is easy to take still photos or videos with a smart phone. In fact, it is too easy. The companies who make these devices know the simpler the better to aide users in their pursuit of picture taking. People are not aware that citizen journalism no longer means anything. But they use their smart phones to record what they see. As a record of the event, those pictures often become history. The poor quality of the recording makes no difference to what the image portrays. The image means everything. The image is all. Stick the phone in front of an action, allow the phone to record what the lens sees – not necessarily what you as the so-called cameraperson sees – and you have a record of usually ungainly participation in untoward acts. Those images are frequently shaky, out of focus, badly framed, and often show only one angle or view.

CCTV and security cameras sometimes add to what a smart phone enthusiast captures on his pocket computer. Almost nothing of how the image is recorded matters. The historical record is important. Without such a record, perpetrators may go free for lack of evidence and social change might never happen. Hail to the citizen historian for having the tenacity to turn on his or her camera phone to record an event when no one else is around. Rest in peace citizen journalism, but thanks for paving the way for the citizen historian.

Without the cell phone, we the public might continue in the dark especially when force rules over good sense. In some cases, force might be necessary. Even when that happens, having a record of the action can add clarity to the confusion that surrounds sometimes-deadly exploits.


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