What Happens When an i-Reporter Gets Hurt?

Raw news footage is great, but how safe are the raw recruits filming it?

In the media world, it’s all about the media, all the time. No matter what the tragedy, what the death toll, within hours of any major event the media critics and are out in force, sussing out new trends, rehashing tired storylines, complaining what could have, or should have been done better, and war-gaming who’s up and who’s down among the media elite.

And guess what? Since the topic is our bread and butter, we have something to say about that.

A quick scan of Romenesko over the past day and a half finds critics and commentators falling over themselves to be the first in line with their take on how the media have covered the massacre at Virginia Tech, where thirty-two students were slaughtered by a deranged undergrad.

In the process, media writers and television critics seem to have discovered anew a couple of things that we’ve known for quite some time — that reporters use social networking Web sites like Facebook to track down sources, and that people take pictures and shoot video with their cell phones. Take these stories and plug them into the narrative of how the Virginia Tech story has been developing, and media writers have had enough vaguely recycled material for a couple dozen media columns on, well, how reporters have used social networking sites to track down VT students, and how other students captured moments from Monday on their cell phone cameras.

We saw many of these same columns right after the July 2005 London subway and bus bombings, when some people shot footage of the immediate aftermath before news crews could arrive.

Nancy Lane, CNN’s vice president of domestic news, used the opportunity to hype her network’s product, telling the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik that the footage shot by “i-Reporter” Jamal Albarghouti (which CNN almost continuously looped) of police officers in front of Norris Hall “is still the best of the day in terms of capturing on video what took place there.” Considering that Albarghouti’s footage is essentially the only footage out there, she has a point. Lane went even further, however, gushing, “What you saw today with the cell phones and the i-Reporters is the future — and the future is now.”

But what is this future? The Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten put it best today when he said that Albarghouti’s footage, and that shot by other students at Virginia Tech, for all its immediate, on-the-scene immediacy, wasn’t really so great:

Its value was essentially voyeuristic rather than informative. To make that point is not to diminish it, but to acknowledge the fact that new media have the same limitations as old — it’s hard to do words and pictures that genuinely add to our knowledge of a situation, particularly a fluid and dangerous one. Unless you’re just plain lucky, it takes practice to do so, and that’s called professionalism. Sensation is actually rather easy to communicate — and the students’ videos, photos and social network entries did that — communicating something worth knowing is a little more difficult.

Arguably the most stunning thing about Albarghouti’s footage is not what he was filming — it took repeated viewings to figure out exactly what it was that he captured — but the fact that he seemed to run toward the gunshots. We applaud — scratch that — we expect any cameraman worth his salt to move toward the action, but a grad student with no experience in these situations? Not so much. It seems more like a recipe for disaster than a brave new moment in citizen reporting.

What’s going to happen the first time one of CNN’s unpaid i-Reporters, or anyone else with a cell-phone camera who puts himself or herself in danger for the chance to record a bit of breaking news, gets seriously injured, or worse, killed, doing something like what Albarghouti did? The title “citizen journalist” has a nice ring to it, but in situations like the Virginia Tech shootings, the last thing anyone needs is a bunch of amateurs running around with their cell phones trying to get in on the action.

One thing that will happen, we suspect, is that CNN and the rest of these wall-to-wall news holes who bottomless appetite for cheap filler has done so much to lower journalistic standards, will no longer get this content for free.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.