In October 2006, Brad Will, an independent and unpaid journalist with the New York City Independent Media Center, was covering a strike by teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico. The strike had the potential to turn violent, and Will knew it. That’s exactly what happened, and Will was shot and killed by Mexican authorities. Will was not associated with any professional news organization, and even if he were it is doubtful that any major news organization would have picked up the story. So why was he there, risking his life to cover this event? Was the risk, and his ultimate sacrifice, worth it? Should ordinary citizens assume roles as journalists, even though some events they cover have the potential to be hazardous? Yes, the risk is worth it. In fact, allowing citizens to act as journalists is absolutely essential.
It is difficult to think of a reason against citizen journalism. Professional journalists on occasion put themselves in dangerous situations to cover a story. Why should it be any different for a citizen journalist willing to assume the risk to do the same? Being paid to cover a story does not give a person special privilege to assume risk. Some may argue that a citizen journalist is more likely to put others in jeopardy when covering a dangerous situation.
The case of Eddie Ho is used as an example. Ho was a passenger on Air France flight 358. The plane did not land in the manner intended, and the passengers were forced to make an emergency evacuation. Ho took pictures from inside the plane during the evacuation, and again when he was outside the aircraft. Mark Rosenker, who was acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Kelly McBride, a lecturer of media ethics at Poynter Institute for professional journalists, commented on the event. Rosenker said, “Your business is to get off the airplane. Your business is to help anybody who needs help. Taking photos is irresponsible” (Rottenberg 269). McBride said, “The media have a responsibility to refuse to publish photos taken by amateurs when someone was obviously risking his life or the lives of others” (Rottenberg 269). However, Ben Sherwood, Executive producer at Good Morning America, said, “From what we could tell from the photos, one was taken during what appeared to be an orderly evacuation. The others were taken from outside, looking back” (Rottenberg 269). From the facts and pictures presented, Ho did get off the plane. Nobody needed any help. Ho did not risk his life nor the lives of others. More importantly, Ho was not acting as a citizen journalist. He was just a guy who was taking some pictures during an emergency evacuation. Does anyone really think a professional journalist in Ho’s position, with camera in hand, wouldn’t have done the same thing?
No journalist, professional or amateur, should put the lives of others in danger by his or her actions. However, why should the stories and photos of citizen journalists, who may have put themselves in danger to cover the stories, be rejected by the professional media, as McBride suggests? Is she saying that it’s acceptable for a professional journalist to assume risk, but not acceptable for an amateur? It’s a statement that really doesn’t make any sense. Newsworthy events can happen anyplace at anytime. It’s impossible for the professional media to be present at every event at the precise moment it happens. Citizen journalists can provide invaluable information and photos if they happen to be on location at a breaking event.
There was no professional reporter present during the tragic mass killing at Virginia Tech, but graduate student Jamal Albarghouti was there. Instead of running for safety, Albarghouti chose to record the situation on his cell phone. Thanks to him, the media and police were provided with a video of the incident. He demonstrated the value of a citizen reporter in providing a report, and taking the initiative to record the scene (Rottenberg 266). He did what most professional journalists would have done in the same situation, and did it well by all accounts. There is no valid reason to reject his video or report simply because of his status as a citizen journalist. Albarghouti and Ho both happened to be present when their respective situations occurred. They were not actively seeking to become citizen journalists. However, there are organizations of citizen journalists that exist. Their members do actively pursue stories. Why should we pay attention to them, and why are they important?
The Independent Media Center (IMC) is one such organization. It was established by various independent and alternative media organizations and activists in 1999. It is a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of the accurate and passionate telling of the truth. Through a decentralized and autonomous network, hundreds of independent media centers have been set up. Some are located in the U.S., London, Canada, Mexico City, Prague, Belgium, France, and Italy. IMCs have been established on every continent (Independent Media Center). They cover the stories that the corporate media ignores. Not only are most major media owned by corporations, these companies are becoming larger and fewer in number as the biggest ones absorb their rivals. This concentration of ownership tends to reduce the diversity of media voices and puts great power in the hands of a few companies (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S. In 2004, Ben Bagdikian’s book, The New Media Monopoly, showed that only five huge corporations — Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) — now control most of the media industry in the U.S. General Electric’s NBC is a close sixth (Media Reform Information Center). The danger does not come from citizen journalists, but rather from the fact that a few organizations have the ability to control so much of what is seen and heard in the media, and can push their agenda on the public.
Recently North Korea launched a missile test under the premise of space exploration. Intelligence agencies of the U.S. and others outside of North Korea monitored the launch, and determined it to be a failure. However, the official position of the North Korean government and its press is that the launch was a great success. The citizens of North Korea believe this to be true, because there is no one else to tell them differently. The 2008 Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, China. A world-wide tour of the Olympic torch preceded the Olympics, and it passed through a number of countries. In several locations, demonstrations were held to protest China’s Tibet policy. This story was reported throughout the world, but very few citizens in China heard about it. The Chinese government was able to suppress the information. These are just two examples of a controlled press. If independent media and citizen journalists were allowed to operate in these countries then their citizens would be exposed to new ideas and information. They would have the power to decide for themselves what is true and what to reject. They would be given access to something that is so essential to a free society.
Everyone should take the time to investigate and understand the problems that are associated with the corporate media. The information is not that difficult to find. A simple Google search on the Internet will bring several results. One group that can provide good information is Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Their website is fair.org. A little research will show why citizen journalists like Brad Will, and an independent media free from outside influences are more important now than ever. What they do may be dangerous at times, but they also keep our society free and informed. Are the things that they do worth the risk? The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes,” and they should be encouraged, supported, and emulated.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “Issue Area: Corporate Ownership.” 25 Apr. 2009.
Independent Media Center. “About Indymedia.” 25 Apr. 2009. .
Media Reform Information Center. Nov. 11, 2008. 25 Apr. 2009. .
Rottenberg, Annette T., and Donna Haisty Winchill. The Structure of Argument.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 266-269.