How the public, citizen journalists and video activists are shaping the media landscape

Events of the last few weeks have brought home to me just how much and how fast the media landscape is changing. The sad and troubling aftermath of the G20 demonstrations in London revealed the extent to which news stories and indeed public policy decisions are now informed by the interplay of:

  • Citizen journalism through formal networks such as Demotix (which recently had a photo used by the Guardian on the newspaper’s front page in relation to the G20 demonstration)
  • Informal video reporting by members of the public that are not looking for a story, but just recording an event. The American hedge fund manager who filmed Mr Ian Tomlinson being struck and pushed over by the police at the G20 demonstration is an example of such ‘accidental’ reportage.
  • Video activism: Protesters using video footage as ‘evidence’ of alleged malpractice or wrongdoing – an example here is the video of protesters challenging a police officer to identify himself by his number at the G20 demo.

Citizen journalists, video activists, and people like you and me with a digital camera or a Flip are new ‘social’ media agents. What has empowered these groups are the simple tools to shoot and share video and the massive consumption of online video through video sharing and social networking sites with the default of course being Youtube.

Does this mean that old media is now on the sidelines? Far from it. In fact, all three examples cited above got into the mainstream and amplified through traditional media, especially newspapers such as the Guardian and the Evening Standard that broke them as stories in their print and online editions.

But what has changed is that front page news that can in a matter of hours change the direction of a major story is as likely to come from footage shot by a member of the public as a briefing from an insider. As the American hedge fund manager commenting on the impact his video had had on the investigation into Mr Tomlinson’s death said “… You needed something incontrovertible. In this case it was the video.”

The perceived role of the Media as the Fourth Estate acting as a check on political authority has been rightly challenged – Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent being a particularly strong mauling. However, I believe that the concept can have real weight when broadened to include not just traditional media, but the new ‘social’ media agents (citizen journalists, video activists and members of the public) who are out taking digital pictures and shooting online video of the events around them non-stop all over the world.

The pen being mightier than the sword always seemed to me to be a hopeful statement, rather than something borne out in practice. However, I am now thankful and relieved that the video camera is proving itself to be more powerful than the police baton.

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Posted by Ivan Croxford on April 18, 2009

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