The future of eyewitness journalism

by Mathew on January 18, 2009 · 16 comments

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!”

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