Ordinary people have been shooting news footage for years. That's how we got film of John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and videotape of police beating Rodney King in 1991.I think it's pretty clear nobody really "owns" events and never has. What news organizations have owned in the past almost exclusively is the capability to capture the news and deliver it. But camera crews to satellite transmitters are in danger of being replaced by cell-phones and relatively inexpensive video cards that can turn one person into a pretty effective mobile news unit. What news organizations also are supposed to have is the experience, credibility and ethical responsibility to portray news events honestly.
But with the Internet has come a series of momentous events when civilians with mini-cams or even cellphones uploaded riveting pictures to websites for the rest of us to view. They delivered the news themselves to vast audiences.
What's now called user-generated content (UGC) played a big role in reporting the terror attacks of 9/11, the South Asian tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Tom Glocer, head of the worldwide news agency Reuters, said of the catastrophic tsunami: "For the first 24 hours the best and the only photos and video came from tourists armed with 1.3-megapixel portable telephones, digital cameras and camcorders. And if you didn't have those pictures, you weren't on the story.'"
Other journalists, gripped by the images transmitted by terrified passengers after the London subway bombings in July 2005, talk of a major change in the basics of news production and consumption. "We don't own the news anymore. This is a fundamental realignment of the relationship between large media companies and the public," said Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC World Service.
No thinking person would downplay the historical importance and impact of user-generated content like the Zapruder film but when you multiply one person by tens, or even hundreds, of thousands, it can cause some challenges. I tend to be distrustful of much user-generated content. Maybe I sat through one too many episodes of "America's Funniest Home Videos" in which I somehow suspected some measure of staging. Maybe I've seen too many really well-executed examples of altered video to take what I see at face value. I certainly have heard the voices of others who don't trust our mainstream media any more than they trust an amateur with a camera.
But the stakes are higher for large media organizations. If someone posts a video on YouTube that is somehow staged, altered or tinkered with, that's all part of what users expect. The MSM has different rules, as we were reminded very graphically when Reuters was forced to pull at least two digitally-altered images.
Perhaps user-generated content is an inevitable part of our information future, which would bring some benefits and dangers for all news organizations. But it at least seems to me that some of those dangers could be prevented if those organizations would commit to gathering more news and waiting for less of it to come to them.