When Mother Jones premiered the now-infamous 47 percent video on September 17, it received two million views in 24 hours and rapidly changed the discourse surrounding the campaign. The next morning, some outlets were already asking, “Is Mitt Romney over?”
But why did the source of the video go to a news outlet like Mother Jones, instead of distributing it independently? The last decade, after all, has seen a rise in citizen and crowd-sourced journalism. The source tried; a Buzzfeed chronology shows repeated attempts to distribute the material starting two weeks after the May 17 fundraiser. But the story didn’t go viral until David Corn, Washington bureau chief at Mother Jones, convinced the source to give him the whole tape, portions of which were used in Corn’s Sept. 17 story.
That four-month process would suggest that civilians can act as civic watchdogs, chronicling events of huge news value, but that journalists are still needed to verify and contextualize the findings before they break as news.
“Primarily, the source wanted some distance from the clips and was trying not to include identifying features, and that made it harder for these things to be widely noticed and accepted,” said Corn. “I was able to authenticate it and figure out where it had happened. And then we put in out under the banner of Mother Jones and David Corn.”
There are two reasons why the involvement of a bigger media outlet was necessary, said Mark Glaser, executive editor of PBS’s MediaShift: exposure and protection.
“The reasons people end up turning to more traditional media when it comes to these kinds of things is that they want wider distribution,” Glaser said. “Unless you’re part of some wider organization or you have a million Twitter followers, it’s going to be hard to get noticed for something.”
Glaser added, “Also as an individual, you would want to tie yourself to someone who has some legal resources versus going it alone and posting it. That’s something that citizen journalists and bloggers find much more difficult to deal with—being taken to court, legal issues. Whether they’re in the right or wrong, they could find themselves in a very expensive legal situation.”
Corn did not confirm whether or not Mother Jones is offering his source legal protection, but he did say that he promised anonymity. “The person was a little worried about putting out a video and getting caught up in a firestorm and getting revealed as the source,” he said.
The long gap between the source’s first post on YouTube, and the decision to link up with a mainstream publication, suggests the source struggled to find the balance between enough transparency to seem genuine and enough mystery to maintain anonymity.
Darrell West, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, told CJR that those concerns give bigger news organizations the advantage. “Certainly it’s possible for individuals to distribute video tapes, but the problem is there’s so much information out there, it’s hard for amateurs to gain the audience that news organizations have,” he said. “It really suggests the continuing role that news organizations play.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelt the the name of MediaShift executive editor Mark Glaser.