Crisis Reporting Is A Big Challenge
Crisis reporting is a big challenge for journalism especially when greater number of crises are likely to be recognized by citizens across the world as global crises, due to large- scale loss of human life, affecting citizens living in different part of the world and generating pressure for intervention to alleviate the situation (Hellman and Riegert, 2009, p. 127). However, with the advent of digital technologies and their convergence, crisis reporting has transformed into real time reporting. Increasing use of smartphones and the rise of social media websites offer a platform for everyone who has something to share. We see events unfold in real time. One example of this are the 2015 Paris Attacks where #prayforparis and #porteouverte emerged as hashtags to show solidarity with the victims. Tweets were shared to offer people shelter and help them find a safe haven (BBC, 2015). The Internet has changed the way news is created and consumed. In the recent past, ordinary citizens have done crisis reporting which is often called ‘eyewitness reporting’ (Allan , 2006) by researchers. There have been several incidents where ordinary citizens have captured horrors and tragedies of a crisis and shared them with the world. These people who happen to be ‘at the wrong place at the right time’ are called amateur or citizen reporters. Critics terms them citizen paparazzi or ‘snaparazzi’ (Allan, 2006). John Naughton calls it ‘ghoulish voyeurism’ enabled by modern technologies (cited in Allan, 2006, p 156). Citizen Journalism is defined as ‘the spontaneous actions of ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary events, who felt compelled to adopt the role of a news reporter’ (Allan, 2007). Some instances include the 2005 London bombings where moving images and video clips of the crisis were provided by ordinary citizens. Even during the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, majority of coverage including video footage and still images were provided by people on the ground who happened to witness the disaster unfold in front of their own eyes (Allan, 2006). Media scholars suggest that citizen journalism provides breaking news faster than media organisations. Further, it challenges the one-sided reporting done by the mainstream media. Most importantly, citizen reporters have provided information from areas that are inaccessible to the mainstream media. Yet, critics argue that the rise of citizen journalism has lead to the rise of misinformation and rumours, making the role of a journalist harder than ever. Not to forget the risk and ethical considerations that come along with citizen reports. This essay takes a look at both sides of the argument.
To begin with, citizen journalism has made it possible to receive information from areas that are inaccessible to journalists. Citizen contributions from war torn areas are unsettling. Soldiers and civilians caught in war, even the medical personnel, tourists, more frequently children have provided some of the heart wrenching accounts and images from recent horrific events (Matheson and Allan, 2009). These kind of ‘I was there’ reporting raises doubts about the way a conflict is represented by the mainstream media and understood by the audience (Zelizer, 2007). Recently the reporting of war in Syria has been difficult for journalists. Firstly, because time and again, the entry of journalists was restricted. Secondly, the risk involved was inevitable as two American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were brutally killed by the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Thus, most of the news we have seen on the war has come from citizen journalists (Platt, 2014). The Tweets from a 7-year-old girl Bana -Al-Abed in Syria gave a glimpse into her life that was breaking away. Her tweets revealed fear and deprivation as her world was coming crumbling down in the besieged city of Aleppo. One of the Tweets read ‘We are sure the army is capturing us now. We will see each other another day dear world’ (@AlabedBana, 2016, cited in Shaheen and Borger , 2016). Bana’s Twitter account was set by her mother, to document their daily life and show the world how difficult it is to live in a war torn country and face the fear of death everyday. Bana’s twitter account has 362,000 followers. She has written open letters to several world leaders including US president Donald Trump asking him to help children caught in Syria. She posted a picture of the same on Twitter which received thousands of Retweets. ‘You must do something for the children of Syria because they are like your children and deserve peace like you,’ read an excerpt from the letter (@Alabedbana, 2017). Bana’s writing is an eyewitness testimony. It allows the readers to experience her misery rather than just hear of it on the news. When her Twitter account was deactivated for a few days, it created a worldwide concern for her safety.
Similarly, the Ebola crisis was one of the most difficult assignments for the journalists, as the areas that were affected by the epidemic were inaccessible. In such a case, citizen reporters were a big help. The citizen journalists were volunteers, some of them students and IT professionals. They were trained by citizen journalism organisation OnOurRadar. In Sierra Leone citizen reporters shared updates about the crisis with media organisations such as the Guardian and the BBC World Service. The stories included personal accounts of people who were surviving without food, water and struggling with the disease (Bannocck and Readers, 2014).
Another point worth noting is that these first hand accounts from ordinary citizens challenge the journalism’s position as the authoritative knower (Matheson and Allan, 2009). This has especially been with respect to war reporting. Mohammad Soubra who shared videos of 2006 Israeli bombing of Beirut says ‘Journalists report without passion and understanding of the depth of war. I want people to see the other side of the war. How you can’t sleep at night because bombs are going off outside’ ( cited in Matheson and Allan, 2009, p 94). In the spring of 2003, the US-led invasion of Iraq gave rise to the popularity of a warblog. ‘A feisty new genre of blog that focussed on the terrorism wars’ (Wall, 2009, p. 33). These blogs came from the soldiers as well as the Iraqis living in the area. Their writing provided different opinions leading to more political divisions. These blogs were a breath of fresh air from the routine and predictable, one-sided western war reporting of the Iraq war. These war blogs ‘have proven to be the most disruptive forms of citizen journalism and one of the greatest threats to traditional war reporting’ (Wall, 2009, p.3).
Furthermore, Rodriguez (2011) argues that an efficient citizen media is the one that provides an alternative to terror, isolation and fear. She describes citizens’ media as ‘those media that facilitate the transformation of individuals into ‘citizens’. She borrows the definition of a citizen from Moufee ‘citizenship is not a legal status but a form of identification, a type of political identity, something to be constructed not empirically given. Thus citizens have to enact their citizenship everyday through their participation in everyday political practices’ (Mouffe, 1992, cited in Rodrigues, 2011, p 24).
Colombia has been undergoing an armed conflict since forty years. Civilians in the country are subjected to electricity cut offs and often hundreds of armed men and women invade towns disrupting normal life and inculcating fear. In the midst of all this, there are citizens’ media ‘stealing’ children and youth from war to teach them about a peaceful coexistence. These media help provide newer non-violent perspectives encouraging peaceful ways of living together (Rodriguez, 2011) . In Colombia, gunfire, explosives and terrified residents has become a norm. Rodriguez (2011) says that people often lock their doors, and hide under the beds submitting themselves to the everyday threats that come with residing in a conflicted region. In such moments, citizen controlled media help overcome the feelings of collective terror providing people with vital information about food, shelter and medicine. As of 2008, the Colombian mediascape included 651 community radio stations, which was possible with the efforts of media activists who managed to democratise airwaves (Rodriguez, 2011). After creating their own radio stations, the civilian communities began sharing their own experience of war. In case of Colombia, citizen media facilitated the recreation of solidarity. As media producers, they were able to narrate, interpret and share the lived experience of the prolonged violence in the region. The use of local knowledge and the language encouraged the participation of a wider community. In an incident, the local citizen community radio decided to transmit christmas carols, asking people to open their windows and increase the volume. Rodriguez (2011) suggests that use of communication and media help resist the impact of armed violence. Citizen media are trying to bring the community together to battle the growing insurgency in the region.
When it comes to breaking news, citizen journalism with the development of social media platforms has proved to be ahead of the traditional media. The crash landing of Asiana Airline 214 at San Francisco international airport is proof. Essential details regarding the crash, such as number of survivors, number of casualties were given by citizen witnesses immediately. Tweets and photographs were making rounds on social media long before the news organisations began covering it. As airport authorities tried to understand the scale of the crash, ordinary citizens had managed to gather bits of information from social networking websites. There was enough evidence available to conclude that there were significant number of survivors (Allan and Thorsen, 2014). Samsung executive David Eun posted on Twitter ‘I just crashed landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine.’ (@eunner 2013, cited in Allan and Thorsen, 2014, p 2). News websites and television channels were quick to create reports out of the imagery and details that had been shared by citizen journalists on social media. Another positive of these citizen reports was that people all over the world were witnessing the crash as it happened – ‘right here, right now’. The ‘immediacy of the first hand perspectives lent the news coverage intense news value, ensuring the story attracted international attention while still unfolding in real time’ (Allan and Thorsen, 2014, p 2).
There has been a significant amount of contention around the coverage of climate change. Crisis such as global warming and environmental hazards hardly receive media coverage. Journalists find it ‘lacking in spectacle’ (Allan, 2009) and at the same time ‘complicated to report alongside journalistic constraints such as deadlines, space, one-source stories, complexity and reporter education’ (Wilson, 2000, p. 206). As a result of this, the news related to climate change and global warming remains underreported. Fortunately, the scientists working in Antarctica have adopted the role of a citizen journalist to report first hand information about global warming. Several Antarctic blogs have come up with Ice Stories being one of the famous ones. Ice stories is a website run by Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco. It featured several citizen journalists on the websites in 2007-2008 where scientists shared incredible pictures, videos, podcasts alongside blogs on diverse subjects such as penguins and climate change (Thorsen, 2009). There are other blogs such as The World of Nematodes and Polar Soils blog that are educating school children and spreading awareness about the growing climate change. Breana Simmons, contributor to The World of Nematodes says that the way mainstream media frames scientific research and Antarctica can be problematic (Thorsen, 2009). These blogs and websites have received good response from students and adults. Their comments section is full of questions from people interested in climate change. The Antarctic blogosphere has created a dialogue with ordinary public that wishes to know more about the impact of global warming. Who better to tell them than the scientists witnessing global warming unfold in front of their eyes? Thorsen (2009) says that scientists’ blogs improvised with digital storytelling methods are providing direct access to expert knowledge. Thus, scientists in the form of citizen journalists are imparting education.
Citizen journalism’s contribution in crisis reporting has been commendable.
However, that does not undermine the shortcomings that prevail with sharing citizen accounts. Critics argue that the biggest problem with Citizen Journalism is that it can dissect the attention at the wrong place. The case in point here is the Woolwich murder that took place on a street in London in broad daylight. The terrorists claimed that this was in revenge of the killings of muslims by the British soldiers in Afghanistan. The barbaric footage of the murder wherein the soldier was almost beheaded was captured on a cellphone camera. The terrorists demanded to be captured on the camera to gain publicity. Jenkins (2013) asserts that the killers wanted attention for their crime, available instantly at the click of a mobile phone and they managed the same in plenty. He writes ‘Any incident is now transmitted instantly around the globe by the nearest citizen journalist. The deranged of all causes and continents can step on stage and enjoy the freedom of cyberspace. Kill someone in the street and an obliging passerby will transmit the message to millions’ (Jenkins, 2013).
Furthermore, the rise of amateur journalism has made fact checking more important than ever. Although, the diversity and depth of citizen content during 2013 Boston bombings was a turning point in media history. Yet, the rumours, vast amount of misinformation created mismanagement (Allan, 2014). Siva Vaidhyanathan warned. ‘We’re really good at uploading images and unleashing amateurs, but we’re not good with the social norms that would protect the innocent’ (cited in Allan, 2014). Critics termed the coverage of Boston bombings as ‘me-first journalism’, ‘unsubstantiated amateur footage’, ‘mass photo dumps’, or ‘unreliable crowd-sourced material’. Questions were raised about sharing news without validation. The New York Post front-page story ‘Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon’ being one of the cases of a hurried up story with massive lapse in judgement. The two young men depicted on a full-page photo were innocent bystanders. A picture with ‘man on the roof’ caused unimaginable speculation on the web leading to fear and confusion about ‘online vigilantes’, ‘digital witch-hunts’ and ‘conspiracy nuts’ (Allan, 2014).
Moreover, often ordinary citizens during the course of recording or sharing their footage compromise the privacy and security of those involved. For Instance, during the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, a man named Jordi Mir captured the horrifying footage of two assailants killing Ahmed Merabet, a policemen, which he published on social media. In no time, that film was in news despite him deleting it from his own social media account. This resulted in an uncomfortable situation for Merabet’s family as their privacy was invaded. Mr. Mir put himself at risk. The problem, rightly examined by Bell was ‘Jordi Mir didn’t have the luxury of an editor or even the possibility of changing his mind. He doesn’t now have the protection of an editor or the legal advice of leading counsel from any of the organisations who used his footage’ (Bell, 2015). The risks are more for an ordinary citizen than they are for a professional journalist, who is often backed by an organisation. Rodriguez (2011) points out the case of Colombia where citizen journalists are constantly testing the boundaries of what the insurgents may allow. At several occasions they have been attacked and silenced.
As you can see, crisis reporting by citizen journalism is both enlightening and problematic. Yet, a better way of reporting a crisis has not existed before. Stories are best told when they come from real people. The news coverage provided by amateurs who happen to be on the scene is better than the detailed analysis of professionals who reach the scene in time to capture its aftermath (Allan, 2006). Citizen Journalism provides not only detailed information, but also puts human faces on the catastrophe. It provides newer perspectives which has always been a challenge for mainstream journalists. Despite the deaths of several journalists and citizen reporters in Syria, several citizen reporters are working for the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) providing updates and often sharing it with media houses. Millions of people from around the world keep up to date with the group’s reports via its main Facebook page and Twitter feed which is booming with followers (Baraniuk, 2016). It hasn’t been an easy task for them, but they are battling the atrocities by ISIS and continuing to provide information in the hope that things will change for better. They all have their own stories about the war and many a times they get it wrong. At times, their videos and images are taken down from websites such as Facebook on the pretext of being too violent ( Baraniuk, 2016). Yet, in the midst of this, they are going forward. There lived experience of the war provides deeper insights into Syria. These narrator and participant accounts are independent of mainstream media, military and political authorities (Matheson and Allan, 2009). Understanding the situation in Syria wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the citizen reporters. In the age of inexpensive camera phones and social media which is a platform for everyone who wishes to share a story, journalists and citizens should collaborate to get their voices heard. The role of a journalist has not been discarded yet. This is the time to enhance it to cope with the issues such as fake news which have become synonymous with online news. The Communication power is best when it’s shared in the interest of people, thus working together collectively will help us acheive the dream of a democratic journalism. Citizen journalism is here to stay and with advancing technologies, we will see a lot more of it.
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