Pros and Cons of iPhones for Citizen Journalists

An iPhone or a smart phone can be a wonderful thing. You can do… well, darn near anything with it, including record for posterity any event within eye-range–or should I say, I-range.

Unless you want to become famous (or infamous), don’t lose your temper at the check-out stand or yell at your kid in the Walmart parking lot. If you do, soon 145,329 (more or less) people could view it on the Internet because some guy caught it on his smart phone, uploaded it to YouTube, then tweeted and Facebooked it even before you got to your car.

From this day forward, politicians at every level, classroom professors, town cops, TSA agents, and even FedEx delivery folks must be on their best behavior at all times. If not, their misadventures will be caught on tape and published for posterity.

We used to complain that Big Brother was watching us. Well, he is; security cameras are now ubiquitous, but your little brother and his anonymous film crew of thousands are also pointing and shooting their smart phones at our every act of clumsiness, stupidity or illegality. This makes it very difficult to “spin” our faux pas once our wife or boss or principal or constituents or friends or enemies see it in living color. No one can get away with even a little prank without the whole world finding out.

Smart phones are good, I suppose, for citizen journalists. It allows them to break news before the mainstream media get back to their vans to edit their tape for broadcast.

But the problem is context. A properly prepared and delivered news story takes time and work. The reader/listener/viewer needs context to fully understand what they are viewing, not just raw footage. A serious journalist always tells the whole story of who, what, where, why, when and how, not just the slip-and-fall part.

In our book, “Handbook for Citizen Journalists,” my co-author Susan Carson Cormier and I write that those who make intermittent or perhaps only once-in-a-lifetime smart phone postings should not be referred to as citizen journalists. We call them “accidental citizen journalists” because that’s what they are. They are citizens who just happened to be somewhere when something interesting transpired, and they pointed a smart phone at it.

Filming something doesn’t make you a journalist any more than using your microwave oven makes you a gourmet chef.

Besides that, accidental citizen journalists have no training in legitimate journalism and no editor to demand they report the whole story. Historically, these kinds of people were referred to as eyewitnesses. They would be interviewed by a reporter, then have their comments placed within the full context of a story.

A serious citizen journalist knows that no 44-second clip of someone’s violation of accepted social norms is the whole story. A serious citizen journalist knows how to put their stories in context.


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