The “Brave Bystander” Effect

This morning, we learned that the George Polk Awards have created a new category for videography—and that the category’s first award recipient is the video depicting the violent death of Neda Agha-Soltan during protests of this summer’s Iranian election.

Interesting to us is the fact that the video was recorded—and produced, and uploaded to YouTube—anonymously. As John Darnton, the Polk Awards curator, put it to The New York Times, noting the video’s viral transformation into “an iconic image of the Iranian resistance”:

We don’t know who took it or who uploaded it, but we do know it has news value. This award celebrates the fact that, in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social networking sites to deliver news.

It does celebrate that fact. But we wonder: should it? The award implies, essentially, that the product of journalism—the work that gets disseminated to a community and, in this case, the world—matters more than the process: the work that goes into the product. The video lacks the accountability associated with a byline, or, indeed, an author; the award recognizing the video is going to someone—actually, several someones—of whose identity we have no knowledge. (Technically, the recipients, per today’s awards announcement, are “the anonymous individuals responsible for recording the shooting death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan at a June protest in Tehran, Iran, and uploading the video to the Internet. The video became a rallying point for the reformist opposition in Iran.”)

It could turn out, in other words, that the person who shot the photo was a random bystander with a cell phone, or an undercover journalist, or a partisan with a political agenda. Would any of that matter in terms of the video’s journalistic value? And, more broadly, is this product-over-process approach to journalistic excellence a valid one for a prestigious awards organization to be taking?

Let us know in the comments section.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.