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Citizen Journalists, Dangerous Settings

One of the most striking moments in the television coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre came early in the day yesterday, when CNN aired cell phone footage from Tech student Jamal Albarghouti. It wasn't so much the images we saw as the sound we heard – gunfire from inside Norris Hall, which, as the New York Times reports, Albarghouti captured while lying on the ground at the orders of responding police officers.

The ethical questions that come with soliciting content from regular citizens in situations like this are reflected in the quote at the end of the Times story. "Stay out of harm's way," CNN anchor Don Lemon told Tech students. "But send us your pictures and video." Part of Albarghouti's reward for sending his video to CNN's "I-Reports," the section of the site that solicits content from outside the organization, was having his name plastered across the screen as CNN repeatedly showed the clip. (CBS News, by the way, has been soliciting video and photos as well, though none have made it on the air or Web site.) Watching CNN yesterday, staffers in the newsroom commented that the video might help Albarghouti land a job.

As the Albarghouti video illustrates, ordinary citizens can have real incentives to get compelling material of dangerous situations and send them to news outlets. But will they always make the right determination when it comes to keeping themselves safe?

Journalists who face dangerous situations, such as reporting from a war zone, can assess the risks going in – and, even then, they aren't always safe. In many respects, the decisions regular citizens make when covering something like yesterday's incident are more difficult, since they have little time for reflection and little past experience to rely on. I hope we don't ever see a situation where a bystander, eager to cover an event like this, puts himself in harms way and comes to regret it.

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