Don't bury journalists just yet

by Jason Gross

19 December 2006


Maybe it’s just that the press revels in cannibalism or they’re goths but they seem uncommonly fascinated with their own demise.  By now, you’ve read the endless weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth about how Web 2.0 is killing journalism as we know it (and letting the great unwashed participate more and more).  One well-toasted article (deservedly so) about this is from the Center for Citizen Media blog (gasp, new media!): The Demise of the Professional Photojournalist.  While it’s another article mourning of the traditional journalist, it also points out what Web 2.0 has to offer and what it ultimately cannot offer.
What’s different about the Citmedia article (and for that matter, a good Times Online article) is that it doesn’t try to scare us about the ending of an era but suggests that old media and media can peacefully co-exist and compliment each other. 

As the Citmedia article notes, amateur films go back to the JFK assassination right up through Michael Richards’ racist rant and the L.A.P.D.‘s savage manhandling of Rodney King.  In all of those cases, no professional photographer or newsman was on the scene to document it but because an amateur was there filming each of those events, they’re now vividly part of our culture.  Imagine the impact of each of those events if they were merely reported on second hand and not actually recorded by film- the JFK assassination would have still shaken the country but would Richards have been in as much trouble or would the King beating have prompted the L.A. riots?  Doubtful.  Since the advent of film, we’ve been fascinated by the idea of moving images, continuing through to TV and the web.  This medium makes experiences all the more graphic for us, literally and figuratively (which is why the Web has become the most popular part of the Internet, next to e-mail).  It also helps to explain why YouTube has become such a phenom.

But as the Times Online article suggests, non-pro video can also help to supplement the news and be incorporated into reporting.  It’s likely that this trend will continue and there’s no real downside to it as long as you have an editor in place to determine what’s usable.  Obviously, news crews can’t be everywhere to document what’s going on so having ordinarily citizens fill in the gaps is a smart way to help cover more events.

Before we annoint citizen journalism as the sole wave of the future in media, let’s not fool ourselves.  The Citmedia article wisely notes that there is always going to be a place for pros out there, in any field.  News orgs are going to send camera crews into Bagdad or Beirut to cover stories but unless someone in those locales has a camera phone at the right place and time, you’re not going to see events there on TV or on the web.  Similarly, average citizen journalists aren’t going to get access to film say a Tom Cruise interview (which might be a bad thing actually).  As such, there’s always a place for the pros in any media.  They’re just gonna have to learn to share their space with the amateurs more and more now.

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