Many of the people who were near the famous Minnesota bridge collapse in August 2007 followed an instinct to run toward the bridge, not away from it, so they could capture videos and still images of the wreckage. Within hours, hundreds of photos had been posted to the Flickr photo sharing site, and dozens of videos were on YouTube.
As I write this in late December 2009, I’m watching the latest citizen-journalism videos made with mobile phones at anti-government protests in Iran. It has taken genuine bravery for these people to stay on scene during the mayhem and tell the world what they’re seeing.
I don’t want to suggest that everyone reading this book is going to commit regular acts of journalism. Most of us won’t, and that’s fine.
But as I noted earlier, I do hope you’ll be thinking about being ready if that moment arrives.
What should you do when you witness something that may be newsworthy? Let’s assume, for the moment, that you’re carrying a mobile phone with a camera in it.
First, get the picture or video, if you can do so safely. If it’s risky, understand the risks and make a decision accordingly.
Second, know what you can do next. The modern instinct, if you don’t have your own blog or other site of your own, is to post it on a photo or video site, or to send it to CNN. Maybe we should rethink several current assumptions in this process.
People have been putting themselves in harm’s way to “get the picture” for as long as cameras have been around. Some—the professional photojournalists—have been paid for it, but others have not.
I question the ethics of news organizations that invite submissions from the public without doing their utmost to warn non-paid shooters away from risks. It’s one thing for a news channel staffer to get videos inside the hurricane, but quite another to urge the same from a resident who’d be safer remaining indoors.
I also question the ethics of news organizations that assume, as many do, that the work of the citizen journalist is something the company should get for free. I’m highly skeptical of business models, typically conceived by Big Media companies, that tell the rest of us: “You do all the work, and we’ll take all the money we make by exploiting it.” This is not just unethical, it’s also unsustainable in the long run, because the people who give freely of their time won’t be satisfied to see mega-corporations rake in the financial value of what others have created.
Not every person who captures a newsworthy image or video necessarily wants to be paid. But many do, and right now, for the most part, their compensation is a pat on the back. Eventually, someone will come up with a robust business model that puts a welcome dent into this modern version of sharecropping.
Stacey’s picture in the London Underground was widely distributed—it was published on the front pages of many newspapers—in part because he put it out under a Creative Commons license allowing anyone the right to use it in any way provided that they attributed the picture to its creator. There were misunderstandings (including at least one use by a photo agency that apparently claimed at least partial credit for itself), but the copyright terms—I’ll explain Creative Commons more fully in the Epilogue—almost certainly helped spread it far and wide in a very short time.
Beyond licensing, we need new market systems to reward citizen photographers. Some startups are positioning themselves as brokers, including a service called Demotix. As I’ll also discuss later, we need to take the next step to a real-time auction system.
A few news organizations have adapted, and are finding ways to reward citizen creators in tangible ways. Bild, the German tabloid, asks people to send in their own pictures, and pays for the ones it publishes. This is an important part of our future.