The future of eyewitness journalism

The photo that captured the incredible survival of the passengers of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, a shot of passengers standing on the wing in the middle of the Hudson River and sitting in an inflatable life raft, was taken by a guy named Janis Krums, who was on the ferry that was going to pick up the stranded passengers and snapped the pic with his iPhone. Within seconds, it was on Twitter, and within a matter of hours it had been viewed by almost a hundred thousand people (I reloaded the Flickr page several times, waiting about two seconds between clicks, and the number of views went up by 50 or 60 each time).

As with the Mumbai bombings, the Chinese earthquake and many other similar events, I and plenty of other people first heard about the plane crash on Twitter, and Krums’s photo was the first visual record of the event that I saw. But that’s mostly because I happened to be in front of the computer and not a television. Plenty of other people said they saw it on CNN long before it was on Twitter, although I have no way of knowing if that’s true. But does it really matter whether a photo and Twitter report from Janis Krums “beat” the traditional media or not? I can’t see how, really.

That kind of “who got the big scoop” question was a big deal back when newspapers ruled the media world, and it still is to some extent with papers and even TV networks. But you know who really cares about that kind of thing? Journalists, that’s who. Normal people can’t even remember most of the time where they heard something or saw something first, nor do they care. In the case of the plane crash, CNN had reports and so did other networks, Twitter had messages and photos from people like Krums — who was then interviewed on TV and in the newspaper — and so on. Now there are YouTube videos and 3D New York Times graphics of the event.

My friend Steve Safran said something very perceptive on Twitter during the event, after people started arguing about whether Twitter beat the mainstream media on the news. The US Airways case, he said, was “an excellent example of witness media and pro media cooperation. It’s not about the ‘versus.'” He’s totally right (and so is Peter Kafka at MediaMemo). Cellphones and video-cameras and Twitter and YouTube and lots of other social-media tools allow more people to contribute eyewitness reports during a crisis or news event, and that’s good. But they don’t replace journalism, any more than the invention of bicycles removed the need for the U.S. Army. The two can work together to make journalism better.

I’ll give the last word to Janis, who was hailed by many as the latest “citizen journalist” to report via Twitter:

“I think it is incredible that anyone at any point can have such an impact by simply posting a picture online. Anyone with a camera phone can report breaking news. I don’t think that twittering, flickering, etc., will replace traditional news coverage. But, it can be a great aid for the traditional media channels.”

Well said, Janis. Or as Peter put it in another MediaMemo post: “Mainstream media to webheads: Thanks for the free content!”

16 thoughts on “The future of eyewitness journalism

  1. Pingback: The Future of Eyewitness Journalism « Timothy |Tim| Peters [.ca]

  2. Mumbai “bombings”? Covered on Twitter? You probably meant the Mumbai Terror Attack o3 26/11.

  3. Janis' words that witness media can be a “great aid for the traditional media channels” is dead on. I just wonder if this “aid” is always going to come free? If there was a “buy now” button underneath his now famous crash photo on Twitpick, would any big media company have clicked? (i.e suppose the photo would have been “licensed” to big media instead of just free for sharing. Is it even possible?)

    • Thanks for the comment, Richard — actually, I was pretty sure I read somewhere that Janis sold his photo for use by Associated Press, but I'm not 100 per cent positive of that. A good point though.

  4. Ha – I love that MediaMemo line, and too true. Many journalists are so focused on literally yelling “FIRST!” that when that no longer matters (as in now) they're quite lost.

    I had dinner the other night with someone who literally wrote the (first) book on crisis communications, and he noted that he preferred the title “citizen observer” to “citizen journalist”, and I agree. Journalism requires (some) training, whereas for observing all you need is a camera phone and a twitter account.

    Therein lies the difference, and perhaps the new model: I may find out about it first on Twitter, but I'm still going to go to the Telegraph (or whoever else credible comes up first on a Google search) to get the well-researched complete story (they had a great video re-creation of the UA 1549 glide, BTW).

    I also often wonder, as per @Richard's comment, if the bottom has completely fallen out of the market for freelance videographers/photographers who used to spend their days listening to police radios in order supply newsrooms with on-the-spot images of crashes & etc.

    • Thanks for the comment, Maggie — yes, I like the “citizen observer” phrase. And I think you are quite right about the market for freelance news-spotters — probably even worse than the market for old-fashioned newspaper journalists 🙂

  5. Pingback:

  6. Matthew (and Maggie)
    I love the “citizen observer” tag – it brushes away so much noise in the discussion and lets some light in, if I can mix metaphors. One of the hardest things I think journalists still have to learn is that stories have a duration and that their job is going to change as they move further away from an event. Initially their job is to gather, focus and link to the work of the citizen observers – who outnumber them and have the advantage of being insiders or on-the-scene. If we focus our efforts on facilitating that work initially – while still going about our traditional fact gathering, story-testing, context-creating jobs, we can really serve our readers well. The propane blast in Toronto last summer offered some great lessons in this area – citizen observers offered all the best content for the first five hours. Then the mainstream media started offering value. (More on that, if you're interested at : – Bill Dunphy

  7. Pingback: Quotes for the week ending 24 January, 2009 «

  8. Pingback: The man who changed twitter |

  9. Pingback: Why Main Stream Media and Twitter should be BFFs

Comments are closed.