The Rise and fall of citizen journalism

Mention 9/11 to anyone and memories of the World Trade Centre burning and buckling beneath its own weight will come flooding back. But who is responsible for documenting the images of the screaming crowds, of the crashing planes and of the walking ghosts of New York, covered head to toe in the ash of what was once their city's pride? None other than the citizens themselves. Indeed, if anything good can be said to have come out of the ghastly events that occurred that day, it is that it marked the moment, in the most macabre manner possible, when citizen journalism summarily asserted its power and significance. The videos that were captured provided an unfiltered commentary on the events as they unfolded, demonstrating the power of citizen journalism in such a way that few of us are ever likely to forget, and that no commercial news network could have hoped to replicate at the time.

Fast forward to the London Underground on the 7th of July 2005; another terrorist attack, another bombing and another brief win for the terrorists, but another triumph for citizen journalism. Once again many of us owe our memory of that day to the people who, armed with digital cameras or mobile phones, managed to capture the details of the moment in a way that traditional forms of news media had not considered possible before. The flame-engulfed underground teeming with people, clutching whatever they had to hand against their mouths to stave off the smoke, juxtaposed with the simultaneous and apparent calm evacuation in single file, was somehow more emotive than the traditional talking heads that were soon to be filmed for all the major news channels shortly after the event. Citizen journalism, it seemed, marked a noble and important addition to news media and, moreover, was here to stay.

Unfortunately the idealised notion of public-produced media as a source of unfiltered news information and reportage did not last long; indeed, it is becoming an ever-increasing quixotic ideal. What was once well meaning has now succumbed to the horrors of marketing and the potential of capital; advertising agencies have appropriated elements of citizen journalism in order to gain financially. For example the trailer for the recent film "Cloverfield" which, via the shaky camera work of a fictitious citizen journalist shows the destruction of New York by an unknown, unseen and powerful force is guilty of exactly this. The choice of camera work, location and laboured metaphor is not a demonstration of directorial prowess, artistry or coincidence – rather, this is a marketing technique that shamelessly exploits the audience by tapping into the emotional response we have all collectively garnered. As a result citizen journalism is gradually, by association, being cheapened; it has sunk to the level of Hollywood.

Furthermore, with the notion that creating headline news is only a few extraordinary video clips away, the thirst for celebrity arises, and people will take advantage of whatever they can to quench such a thirst. This is exactly what happened when the latest phenomenon known as "Balloon Boy" surfaced in Colorado on the 15th of October 2009, in which the parents of six-year-old Falcon Heene falsely claimed that he had floated away in a home-made balloon. Thanks to the parents' manipulation of the media, the event managed to attract world-wide attention and eventually, derision. Is this to be the legacy of citizen journalism?

Just as all had seemed lost and subject to irrelevance, the 2009 Iranian election protests kicked off, relying heavily on all forms of social media. Thanks to sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, people outside Iran now know the extent of the violence imposed by the Iranian government on those who dare to protest. We know of the death of the Iranian student Sohrab Aarabi, we know of the dormitory raids that happened within universities throughout Iran and we know of the tragedy of Neda Agha-Soltan, an innocent and peaceful protestor who was captured on video as she lay dying in the street.

However, whilst the rest of the world may well be better informed as a result of citizen journalism, there is an unnerving lack of political change as a result. We have capitulated to indolence. Perhaps then it is not a question of whether or not this mode of journalism is still germane to our ideas of news media today, but rather whether or not anyone is bothering to listen; a question to which I fear we all know the answer.

Nicholas Tufnell

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