December 30, 2007

Amateur vs Professional

Germany’s most popular newspaper BILD published a blurred picture of a man with sunglasses today on the front page of its online edition and asks in the headline if this man is the killer of Benazir Bhutto, chairwoman of the Pakistan People Party, who was assassinated on December 27th.
This and two other pictures of the man and the gun he is –supposedly- pointing at Bhutto were taken by an amateur photographer, who went to Bhutto’s election rally and shot the pictures by coincident.

To check if other newspapers had published the pictures as well, I googled the keywords “picture” and “Bhutto’s killer”. What I found were thousands of entries in blogs, on youtube or political forums. They had even videos of the assassination.
To my surprise none of UK’s big newspapers had published the pictures. But why?

Has user generated content gotten ahead of ‘real’ journalism? Are citizen journalists maybe faster than real journalists? Better equipped even? Or do real journalists hesitate because they doubt the authenticity of the pictures or the credibility of its source?

These questions not only arise in the case of Bhutto’s killer, but almost every time when user generated content, its credibility, its danger to journalism, its potential and its standards – including ethical standards – are being discussed.

In recent years user generated content and citizen journalism have developed rapidly due to the development of media technology and have become an inherent part in today’s media.
People write about their personal experiences in blogs and online forums or take pictures of celebrities or events with their camera phones. After the July 7th bombings for example the BBC received thousands of pictures and videos from people who were in the trains or witnessed the bus explosion. And many of the pictures we saw of the 9/11 attacks were taken by amateur photographers as well, because they were the once at the scene.

Citizen journalism is nothing unusual anymore and many journalists believe that it has many advantages when their readers or viewers contribute to the media content. The strongest argument for citizen journalism is probably that citizen journalists are able to report first hand or to provide videos of events that - without them – could not have been caught on camera. Furthermore, some journalists believe that the possibility for readers and viewers to contribute can strengthen their relationship with the newspaper or broadcaster that publishes their material or can even help to discover real talent among the many amateur journalists.

Another good thing about citizen journalism, from the view point of broadcasters and newspapers, is that it comes quite cheap. Although BILD for example offers its readers 500 Euro (£325) when their pictures get published, some readers offer their material even for free because they feel rewarded enough that their pictures get published at all.

But although user generated content and citizen journalism may have many advantages, it is not all good. Despite the fear of professional journalists that any person with a camera phone or recorder could make them dispensable, many journalists worry about the lack of credibility and accuracy of citizen journalists.

"We should not automatically assume that the material is accurate and should take reasonable steps where necessary to seek verification. We also need to be on our guard against photo manipulation and hoaxing," said BBC News Interactivity Editor Vicky Taylor.

The German magazine Stern for example did not think it was necessary to doublecheck when they received “exclusive” pictures of Bruno the Bear, a wild bear on the loose that kept farmers in South Germany in fear for their sheep.
The journalists in charge published the pictures, but soon had to discover that they showed nothing but a random bear at a zoo.

Although we only talk about pictures of a bear, this case demonstrates that citizen journalists and their material are not always trustworthy.

Another argument against citizen journalists is that not all of them know about journalistic and ethical standards.

As a postgraduate journalism student I was taught a lot about ethical standards: the importance of respecting privacy, what is allowed when talking to someone on or off camera, if names and faces of victims or any people involved in a crime should be made public…The list is very long.

Citizen journalists do not always know about these standards and do not even realize when breaking them.

To protect itself from being associated with fake material provided by citizen journalists, but also to secure that material they publish that was provided by citizen journalists is trustworthy and was gathered legally, the BBC introduced new guidelines in this matter.

Although I believe that citizen journalism and user generated content – like this blog - can contribute positively in many ways to professional journalism and professional media content, I also believe that it is important to secure that a certain level of accuracy, objectivity and credibility is guaranteed.
And offering readers 500 Euro (£325) for their latest picture of a celebrity on holiday, like BILD does, is in my opinion not exactly the right way to promote ethical standards among amateur journalists.

However, I found it really interesting to read about the latest conspiracy theories in the case of Benazir Bhutto and to look at pictures of possible killers, but when it comes to what really happened that day I prefer to read hard facts and information that has been verified by the newspaper I trust.

Blogs to check out in this matter:
Blogging: the end of journalism?
Paying for a citizen paparazzi?

1 comment:

Michaele M said...

I agree, user-generated content (UGC) is running journalist out of business. (you and I will have a hard time finding a job because of them! bastards!) One form--blogs--fortunately only reaches a few target people. If they like it, they may pass on the link, but the only blog that I'm aware of that's become popular is that of Perez Hilton. Maybe we shouldn’t start shaking in our boots about them taking over journalism just yet. (that and why would I listen to a blog when I can get the news from an accredited news agency?)

If it wasn't for visual user-generated content, we wouldn't have clips of news events like the Virginia Tech shooting... It's not like there were camera phones to capture important moments like the signing of the Constitution so why do we need to see user-generated content on recent events? Honestly, events like Saddam's hanging and Virginia Tech should not have been documented by photography because, frankly, I don’t want to be exposed to that kind of videos/photos.

All and all, UGC is good for validating stories that may seem unbelievable, but it's still pretty ridiculous what stupid things news agencies ask for their viewers to submit.

For instance, I hate it when it comes to that moment in the newscast when the broadcaster goes "And here is our picture of the day. It’s little Tommy running in the sprinklers! His proud dad Bob from York sent that into us. Thanks Bob!" OOoohh, so special. HONESTLY, why do we need to see this? Oh you have a digital camera or camera phone and are a little snap happy, bravo.

What pisses me off the most (and I'm sure you'll agree) is the fact that viewers are willingly giving up the copyright to their unimportant or important picture once it's been submitted to a news agency. Now the viewer will never get it back, nor will they get paid for it. What a sham!

Wow... maybe UGC is a ploy by the news agencies to get content for free so they can save on their budget and not have to send out a photographer. What do you think?

MM xx