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May 26, 2010

Mobile Made Media

Sculpture: OMG LOL (Detail) / Eyebeam Art + Technology Center OpGLOBAL – Citizen journalism – acts of journalism committed by probably untrained and unpaid members of the public – is increasingly a part of our news media diet. That’s the product of many forces. People want eyewitness reports. Traditional newsrooms are suffering from squeezed budgets and so are more likely to take their media from wherever they can get it. But as much as anything, it is because so very many people have a good quality camera (increasingly, a video camera) in their pocket and the means to transmit their pictures by email or MMS.

In the UK, the power of citizen media first became widely recognised as a significant force with the 7/7 London Bombings in 2005. The pictures and videos that we saw of those events came not from outside broadcast teams, but from ordinary people carrying mobile phones.

More recently, MobileActive points out the way mobile cameraphones have played a key role in the reporting of recent political events and natural disasters globally. In Haiti, despite it being one of the poorest nations of the earth, a steady stream of pictures and messages allowed the world to learn more about the impact of its recent earthquake. Perhaps more importantly, the Ushaidi map of direct reports from individuals meant that rescue workers could plan and direct their efforts more effectively. SMS messaging is used in Namibia to allow more people to react to stories in one of the country’s leading newspapers. In India, voice messaging is used by a number of projects to allow illiterate people to spread and receive regular news. In the US, day-labourers use MMS messages to blog about their lives. When US Airways flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River last January, it was a mobile picture ‘twitpicced’ by a rescue boat’s captain that subsequently appeared on front pages across the world.

Rachel Sterne of the citizen journalism site GroundReport says that mobile and citizen media are a perfect match:

Mobile devices are the perfect tool for on-the-ground reporting: they enable event documentation that is instant, rich and location-based. Tools like TwitPic, a photo publishing Twitter application … the Nokia N97’s video streaming ability, empower people to report wherever they are with multimedia capabilities.

Critics would suggest that citizen journalism is a threat to quality reporting, opens the door for cranks with an axe to grind and supplants editorial judgement with populism. There may be some truth to that: but the counter-argument is that people don’t trust mainstream media any more, that transparency of agenda is of greater importance than supposed neutrality and that, in any case, the business model that supported vast, international news teams has fallen by the wayside. The debate still rages.

Meanwhile our mobile devices are getting better, ensuring citizen journalism is something that’s set to play a bigger part in the media we consume, however the theoretical discussion might conclude. With features such as geotagging images already a feature of many smartphones, alongside better quality image and video recording, we’re all set to play that bigger part. Personally, I’d like to see even more smart tech. What about richer semantic data, verification that the picture hasn’t been tampered with, alongside better facial and architectural recognition? I think that relatively simple advances could put us onto a whole new citizen journalism plane. What do you think? What would you want from your device to make you a better citizen journalist?