Rodney King and the Rise of the Citizen Photojournalist


Twenty years ago, on March 3 1991, a media shock wave hit Los Angeles and the nation: the Rodney King video. As a bystander captured the incident with his home video camera, several LA police officers beat King repeatedly while other officers stood by and watched.


The video, or more accurately its broadcast across America, set in motion consequences that have reverberated through the years since the beating. Among them: the Los Angeles riots, after the acquittal of police charged with assault, and the poisonous relations between LA police and many of the city’s citizens.

Another impact, of course, was the recognition — which grows more and more prevalent — that anyone with a video camera could become more than a witness to the events of our times. The camera-bearing citizen, in this case a man named George Holliday, was becoming an integral part of how we remember these events.

Bridge truck photo

Holliday’s act was one of citizen journalism. It wasn’t the first, however, even though it was a milestone.

Indeed, people have been witnessing and taking pictures of notable events for a long, long time. Consider the picture at the right. It shows a man being rescued from a truck that dangled over the side of a bridge. It was taken by Virginia Schau, an amateur photographer who happened on the scene after the accident. She won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.

Zapruder 246

Less than a decade later, an old-fashioned movie camera captured the most famous pictures in the citizen-media genre: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder, the man pointing the camera that day in Dealey Plaza, sold the film to Life Magazine for $150,000— over a million dollars in today’s currency.

In Dealey Plaza that day, one man happened to capture a motion picture—somewhat blurred but utterly gruesome nonetheless—of those terrible events. Zapruder’s work, by any standard we can imagine, was an act of citizen journalism.

But the Rodney King video was a turning point. By 1991, home video gear was becoming common, heading toward today’s near-ubiquity. When people saw that video, they realized a number of things, not least of which was the possibility that average citizens could hold powerful people — the police in this instance — somewhat more accountable for wrongdoing they committed in public places. Witnessing was being transformed into action, we all understood.


Today, many of us carry around still and video cameras that are part of our phones. In the U.S. and around the world, people are capturing events, routine and horrific, that mark our times. The mobile-phone video of Neda Soltani’s death by gunshot in the aftermath of Iran’s rigged 2009 election became a rallying point for opposition to the regime.

In recent days, the grim videos and photos coming out of Libya have been testament to people’s desire to bear witness to cruelty and oppression. Around the world, dictators have learned that even if they kill their people they can’t ultimately stop the world from seeing what crimes they commit. Yes, they can use technology to stifle freedom, and they do. But media from average people can make a real difference, too, and it does again and again.

Imagine where we will be a decade from now in a technological sense, and then let’s return briefly to November 22, 1963. Dozens or hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza would have been capturing high-definition videos of the Kennedy assassination, most likely via their camera-equipped mobile phones as well as single-purpose digital cameras and video recorders. They’d have been capturing those images from multiple perspectives. And—this is key—all of those devices would have been attached to digital networks.

If the soon-to-be-ubiquitous technology had been in use back in 1963, several things are clear. One is that videos of this event would have been posted online almost instantly. Professional news organizations, which would also have had their own videos, would have been competing with a blizzard of other material almost from the start—and given traditional media’s usually appropriate reluctance to broadcast the most gruesome images (e.g., the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in Iraq), the online accounts might well have been a primary source.

And think about this: We’d also soon have a three-dimensional hologram of the event, given the number of cameras capturing it from various angles. Which means we’d probably know for sure whether someone was shooting at the president from that famous grassy knoll. In the future, government commissions will still issue official reports, but the documents will be created with much more input from citizens, who, because of digital media tools, are playing increasingly direct roles in governance as well as elections. The prospect of actually making policy, or at least having an impact on it, can offer a serious incentive to be a citizen journalist.

Another famous picture of our times is the single image that we will most remember from the July 2005 bombings in London. It was taken by Adam Stacey inside the Underground (London’s subway), as he and others escaped from a smoky train immediately after one of the bombs exploded. The production values of the image were hardly professional, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was the utter authenticity of the image, made so by the fact that the man was there at the right time with the right media-creation gear.

Stacey’s picture, like the other material I’ve highlighted here, made its way to wide viewership largely because traditional media organizations gave it a push. That will be less and less necessary as social media become the news-access tools of choice for a new generation that consumes, produces and shares news in varying ways. Big media will always have a role, an important one for some time to come, but it’s no longer clear that they’ll be as overwhelmingly essential even in the “distribution” arena.

The era of ubiquitous media creation tools has been dawning for some time. It is almost here now. It will bring some alarming consequences, notably a further erosion of personal privacy; for example, even if you don’t want the world to know that you were falling-down drunk at that party, there’s a growing chance that someone else who was there will post a picture of you in that condition on Facebook.

We will be better off, in the end, as more and more journalistic media creation of this sort becomes part of the mainstream. This isn’t good news for professional spot news photo and video journalists, who are much less likely to be at the scenes of newsworthy events than their “amateur” fellow citizens. But we will have more genuine media than before, as in the authenticity of the London image, and that is a good thing for us all.

UPDATE: In conversations with the Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers, who’s working on written a terrific piece of his own about the King video and its long-range impact, the subject of speed of publication/broadcast and compensation came up. I’ll point to his piece as soon as I see it, but meanwhile hHere are two Mediactive excerpts I sent him relating to these issues.

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 calledDemotix. 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.

Just as some people gladly take the New York Times’s absurdly low pay when their freelance articles make it into the paper’s news and op-ed pages, some photographers gladly sell their work for peanuts to Time. They have their own reasons, which can range from getting valuable exposure—so they can (try to) charge more for subsequent work—to not needing the higher rates that staffers and more famous people can demand.

This gets trickier, it seems to me, when it comes to breaking news, where news organizations derive enormous benefits from having the right image or video at the right time, and too frequently get it for less than peanuts. Indeed, practically every news organization now invites its audience to submit pictures and videos, in return for which the submitters typically get zip.

Which is why we need a more robust marketplace than any I’ve seen so far—namely, a real-time auction system.

How would a real-time auction system work? The flow, I’d imagine, would go like this: Photographer captures breaking news event on video or audio, and posts the work to the auction site. Potential buyers, especially media companies, get to see watermarked thumbnails and then start bidding. A time limit is enforced in each case. The winning bid goes to the photographer, minus a cut to the auction service.

The premium, then, would be on timeliness and authenticity. One or two images/videos would be likely to command relatively high prices, and everything else would be worth considerably less.

Eventually, someone will do this kind of business—which could also be useful for eyewitness text accounts of events. For the sake of the citizen journalists who are not getting what they deserve for their work, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

For print, an auction system is also needed, but the timeliness is less critical. A British startup is planning, as I write this, to launch a service called “Newsrupt,” aimed more at editors than reporters. I hope it’s the first of many such ventures.

(I initially wrote this piece, which is adapted in part from the Mediactive book, at the request of However, CNN declined my request to run it with a Creative Commons license, and since I’m not being paid for the effort I declined to let CNN use it in the first place. Note: I normally don’t care for anniversary journalism, but this felt like a worthwhile exception.)

Multitasking: Let the User Decide, Not the Computer Maker

One of the weirder memes I’ve seen in a while has emerged among some iPads fanatics. In this instance, at least a few folks are thrilled by one of the device’s major shortcomings.

Mark Hedlund, for example, is a super-smart guy. But I’m baffled by his post praising the iPad for its lack of multitasking capabilities — running more than one program at once so users can a) let automatic updates occur behind the scenes while they do stuff, such as read or work, in the foreground; and b) quickly switch back and forth, working on several tasks in a quasi-parallel mode.

I’m not the only one who thinks multitasking is an essential part of a modern computing device. In Apple’s case, the Pope Steve Jobs has decreed multitasking will be in the next version of the iPhone operating system, which is also the software heart of the iPad.

In any event, Marc writes that the iPad is in a different category from a personal computer. I agree on that, to a degree, but consider what that means to Marc:

I love how focused I am using an iPad, versus working on a laptop. New mail isn’t constantly arriving; tweets aren’t Growling into view; I don’t even have an RSS reader installed. Instead I’m just reading a book or just playing a game or maybe just working. This is a huge relief, an antidote to interruption. (I’m sure having more than just one app running, as promised in OS 4.0, will be a benefit in some ways, but for today I love not having it.)

That focus, plus the direct manipulation interface that loses mouse and keyboard in favor of pointing and tapping, makes the experience of using an app more intimate than on a laptop. I think now of personal computing and iPad computing as significantly different. It’s not just a different form factor, but a different kind of work that I do on the iPad. Put simply, it seems to produce a flow state much more easily for me, and once I’m in it, I fall out into distraction much less easily.

I confess, I don’t get it.

Although the Mac I’m using to write this posting has multitasking built into the operating system, it’s my decision whether to become distracted or not as I work. I choose, at the moment, not to be distracted by Twitter, email or the latest news from my favorite journalists and bloggers. I choose to be writing this post, and I’ll stop when I’m finished.

I can prevent email and Tweets from arriving (and often do) without crippling the computer. Here’s my system: I often shut down my email and Twitter software when I’m working on a blog post or book chapter or anything else demanding as much of my attention as I’m able to give. Works like a charm, and when I want to leave myself open to distraction again I start up the other software.

Again, I’m not oblivious to Marc’s basic point: He doesn’t see the iPad as a a computer as much as a device that he wants to use for only one thing at a time, given its size and features. When I get a tablet device, however, I’ll want the option even if I rarely use it.

IdeasProject: What Can We Each Do to Get Reliable Information?

Here’s a question I hope you’ll take a crack at answering, and not just because you might win a phone if you come up with the best answer:

What single thing can each of us do to to assure that we and our communities (of interest and geography) have enough trustworthy, useful information?

That’s the “Question of the Week“  at Nokia’s The idea is that once a week, someone involved in the project asks a question that sparks some interesting ideas and conversation.

Next Sunday, I’ll pick the best response. Remember, I’m looking for a single thing we each can do; you probably have a dozen good suggestions, but pick the one that will give us the greatest return for our time.

There’s a reward for the best answer: The one who comes up with it gets a Nokia phone.

Some background to my question, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following our conversations here already:

We are in a splintering media world where anyone can commit a globally visible act of journalism — or deception. This means we’re awash in both good and bad information, and if Theodore Sturgeon’s maxim is true, most of it is crud. But with the huge amount of new stuff out there, this also means that there’s an enormous amount of good stuff, too.

So how do we sort the good from the bad? I’ve discussed it at some length in my own new project, but I’d like to be sure I haven’t missed anything.

To answer the question, visit to get directly to the Question of the Week. I’ll be updating here and on Twitter during the week. Please use the hashtag “#ideasproject”.

While you’re visiting, be sure to spend a little time looking at the other folks who’ve contributed not just the weekly questions but a whole variety of other thoughts, including Clay Shirky, Charlene Li, Robert Scoble and many others.

Several disclosures: Nokia is giving me one of their Netbooks in return for participating in this feature; I plan to donate it to a local school. In addition, in 2009 Nokia purchased, a company I co-founded. I also have friends at Nokia, and the company gave us some phones several years ago to do mobile experiments as part of student projects.


Live-blogging, Live-Tweeting or What?

I managed to puzzle some of my Twitter followers this weekend, especially yesterday, when I posted a slew of tweets from the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, a company in which I’m a shareholder. I also had a media pass, which gave me admission to a press conference held by the company’s two senior leaders, Warren Buffett and Charles Munger.

I’ll talk about Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett and Munger in a separate post on my personal blog. It seems appropriate here, however, to chat briefly about the pros and cons of live-blogging versus live-tweeting, etc.

My regular Twitter followers were definitely not expecting the fire hose from me; normally I post anywhere from zero to a dozen or so Tweets a day, usually in the 6-9 range. Suddenly my Twitter stream turned into a torrent, and it came as a surprise to some followers.

One follower and good friend shot me an email asking, basically, WTF I was doing. I explained and said it was an experiment, probably a one-off. He replied, in turn, that he was kind of enjoying it, but still…

I’m fairly sure it was a one-time affair, and here’s why:

Live-tweeting strikes me as the wrong tool for this kind of task. It’s an impressionistic medium, not a deep one, at least so far in its history. If I’m going to keep notes for you about an event I’m witnessing, I’d prefer that you be able to find them easily as I write them — but also to find them in one place when it’s over.

The plus side of live-tweeting stems not just from what one person writes, but very much as well from others’ contributions to a running group observation and commentary. Hashtags make this easy. (I posted the Berkshire material with the #brk2010 hashtag, which a number of other journalists were using.) Following a group’s blog posts is, due to the nature of that medium, more difficult.

Other tools for this task include the excellent CoverItLive, which I’ll try sometime soon at an event I find newsworthy enough. One advantage of CoverItLive is the ability of several people to simultaneously add to the stream. (Is there a good open-source tool or WordPress plug-in that does the same things or has significant portion of the same features?)

But I’m leaning toward making it simple, and just using a blog from now on. I’d rather keep stuff on my own site, thank you, than turn it over to another company and the ever-morphing terms of service we see from providers of all kinds.

One worry this weekend turned out not to be a big deal: annoying people sufficiently that they’d unfollow me. A few did, especially during the Sunday press conference. Yet more started following at the same time, and the day left me with a net gain.

Bottom line: Next time I do something like this, I’ll probably live-blog and point to it from Twitter.

Of course, I’m still thinking about all this, and reserve the right to change my mind. More than once…

Digital Media Lessons from the Game Developers Conference

Last week I attended the Game Developers Conference and kept my eyes open for topics related to media literacy. Thoughts on media consumption and creation show up in the multitude of lectures, panels, bootcamps and roundtables dedicated to the study and creation of games. Here are some things I gleaned:

Serious Games Summit
Redistricting GameSeveral interesting things came up at the Serious Games Summit, which is the session track for examining games used for purposes other than entertainment (not that entertainment isn’t a worthy goal itself). Here are the highlights:

  • Soren Johnson contrasted game theme with mechanic in a talk titled “Theme is not meaning.” This is an important breakdown when it comes to games literacy as game mechanics tend to deliver the real meaning in a game. Johnson’s thesis was that a game’s window dressing was just that unless the mechanic matched. The Redistricting Game was offered of a solid example of matching theme with mechanic as the player is tasked with literally drawing new voting district lines to win needed votes. The discussion goes much deeper and Chris Dahlen writes more about the talk here.
  • Borut Pfeifer has been working on a game about crowds in the Iranian Election. Named The Unconcerned, the game pulls the player through the streets of the Iranian election by putting her in the shoes of parents looking for their daughter. Pfeifer’s talk covered prototyping and the many iterations along the way to figuring out what played well. The biggest takeaway here concerns creation. Traditionally, creating media involved getting one’s ducks in a neat row before creation began. However, games and other digital media find success in testing and getting feedback on many rough drafts along the way. I’m going to hunt down some links for the best practices for iterative design for the Mediactive Tools section.
  • While the talk strayed more into digital entrepreneurship, Jelena Godjevac presented a case study of Blossom, a game that places the player in the role of a small business owner. Blossom came out of Micro Enterprise Acceleration Institute (MEA-I) as a game-based way of furthering local micro-business. They’re looking for new ideas for games that teach entrepreneurship and are teaming up with HP in a design contest. I’d love to see submissions related to digital media entrepreneurs, like starting a local news site or training citizen journalists.

Game Writers’ Roundtable
Several worthwhile tips came out of a roundtable of both professional and amateur game writers. Here are the ones that apply well to digital media creation.

  • Show don’t tell – In an interactive environment, show a story before using words. Figure out what you can say with other forms of media. This applies to even something like blogs. Can you set your stage with a good photo or video? Does a link or a podcast say it better than you can?
  • If you can’t tweet it, you shouldn’t write it – This came up in the context of dialogue and text in midst of play. The same could be applied to captions, explanations of mashups and even one’s YouTube video descriptions. There are excellent uses for long form, but if your creation is multimedia, don’t burden it with text. Err on the side of brevity.

Social games were a hot topic at the GDC this year, both for the massive jump in people playing these games and for their lucrative nature. I sat in on a session with Mark Skaggs of Farmville where he explained the game’s development process. Farmville itself has been a bit of a phenomenon and a rather controversial one.

Most interesting for Mediactive’s purposes are the rapid creation and development of Farmville. According to Skaggs, the initial team was composed of less than ten people and was developed in five weeks. From the point of release, the game acquired about 1,000,000 new users per week, an above-expectations rate. This critical mass gave the team lots of data, which informed the design going forward. Skaggs explained “fun” as something hard to measure, while behavior could be tracked by clicks. When strawberries received a large number of clicks, the team created “Super Berries” and the resulting popularity nearly crashed the server. This is just one example, but every game action and click was evaluated for new direction in content.

I see a couple lessons here that apply to digital media:

  1. Release quickly and design based on data and user feedback.
  2. Data-driven design requires greater discussion when it comes to news. Lots of clicks can tell you if a story is popular, but a click can’t tell you if the reader was informed. As well, a click may tell a creator if people enjoy content, but not the impact of that content. For example, a reader may spend more clicks in a day on what celebrities are wearing, but one click given to a long form political story may have the greatest impact on a future vote.

Beyond what I’ve covered here. I ran into some interesting tools for media creation, which I’ll be testing and posting to the Tools page. Games and interactive environments are ripe for experimentation when it comes to new media and I’m excited to see what emerges over time.

Librarians Offer Online Research Modules

Check out Research 101 from the University of Washington:

an interactive online tutorial for students wanting an introduction to research skills. The tutorial covers the basics, including how to select a topic and develop research questions, as well as how to select, search for, find, and evaluate information sources.

I tend to worship librarians. This is one reason why.

Slate’s Garden Path

Linking to things you consider interesting is a fundamental part of being a creative Web person. The entire point of links, however, is to send people to other places.

Unfortunately, some sites are creating link aggregations that appear to have another purpose: keeping you as long as possible inside their own garden and only letting you out if you persist. It’s a shoddy practice, and from my perspective it appears to be a growing one.

Go to the homepage of Slate, as I just did, and you’ll see the following list, a new feature the publication calls “The Slatest” — links to journalism on the Web that Slate considers especially worth seeing:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 1.17.47 PM.png

Hmmm. That top item about banks too big to fail sounds interesting. You click on it and you’re taken to this page:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 1.18.20 PM.png

Well, that’s not especially helpful. So you click again on the top item, and you’ll find this:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 1.25.08 PM.png

You start to ask yourself if you can ever read the actual story that Slate finds so worthy. It turns out that you can, if you click inside the long description of the piece — a summary that basically rewrites the original — on a hyperlink that finally, finally takes you to the original journalism.

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 1.19.10 PM.png

Making users jump through hoops creates disdain, not loyalty. Let’s hope the beta version of Slatest gets replaced by something truly useful. Right now, what they’re doing is annoying and little else.

Eleven More Things I’d Do if I Ran a News Organization

Well, that was interesting. When I posted those “Eleven Things I’d Do if I Ran a News Organization,” I confess I wasn’t expecting the great response, which ranged from compliments to potshots to refinements to suggestions (and more).

The list of 11 wasn’t meant to be comprehensive. Still, I’ve been asked if those items represented everything on my hypothetical plate. Of course not. (Contrary to what some folks said about the previous list, these aren’t just aimed at newspapers; they apply to any media organization that purports to do journalism.)

Anyway, here are 11 more things, not in any particular order, that I’d insist on if I ran a news organization. Continue reading Eleven More Things I’d Do if I Ran a News Organization

A NY Times Conversation Thread, Recreated

Conversation comes slowly to major media organizations, but even when it does, it can be difficult to follow. Consider the following sequence:

On August 7, the New York Times published a Floyd Norris column criticizing General Electric for financial shenanigans that Norris called Enron-like in some respects. The piece was another bit of the accumulating evidence that the tenure of former CEO Jack Welch had sufficiently sleazy elements to call into question, to put it mildly, Welch’s super-duper-elite reputation.

GE, like most other big companies, pays legions of people to make bad news go away or at least be less bad. In a letter to the editor published Sept. 9 (the one-month delay is curious), the company’s “Executive Director, Communications and Public Affairs” objected to Norris’ column.

Continue reading A NY Times Conversation Thread, Recreated

White House Not Honoring Promises on Openness in Public Questioning

The Obama administration has turned its “online town hall” events into a parody of what they were intended to be, which specifically were supposed to include a genuine effort to include questions from the citizens of this nation in an open process, not the bogus pre-selection system that is turning into an Obama trademark. Yesterday’s health care event, for example, included just three questions from online contributors (and only eight in all, notes the TechPresident blog) in an event that makes some of George W. Bush’s staged events seem almost spontaneous.

When called on this by White House journalists, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs responded with arrogance. He demonstrated not just contempt for the Washington press corps (which does often earn contempt) but also to the administration’s promises of openness and bottom-up accountability. A shabby performance, and worrisome if you care about how this White House will behave when its current public favor diminishes, as it surely will.

So when you watch one of these events in the future, be aware that there’s barely a shred of the give-and-take we were promised. This White House would rather rely, at least for now, on the kind of staging that previous presidents used so often, and which candidate Obama and many of his aides and supporters found so correctly offensive.