But Frederico said she saw a spark of journalistic talent, and it was Ciampa’s excitement for finding stories that inspired her to create a Web site to teach everyday citizens the principles of journalism. “He has the eye for the story,” Frederico said, remembering a time when, on the way to the LaGuardia Airport, he pulled over to document the damage caused by a plane engine that fell from the sky onto an industrial area, and was able to interview people at the scene along with the professional journalists there.
To Ciampa, the difference between telling a story as a blogger or as a citizen journalist is that, “In citizen journalism it’s more street level—you have to have more accountability and you have to have your facts straight,” he said. “I always keep my eyes open to what’s going on.”
Back in November 2008, Ciampa saw an arrest happening on the sidewalk near his home in Queens. One young man was being subdued by a group of five or more officers. Upon interviewing neighbors and the young man’s mother, Ciampa later learned that the man had been stopped for driving without a seat belt and yanked out of his car. But first, Ciampa grabbed his video camera and starting filming the unfolding scene through his window. In the clip on YouTube titled “Police brutality at Ozone Park, Queens, NY”, he can be heard yelling to the police, “You guys are on the Channel 4 news tonight! Word up!”
The footage is shaky—and, because of the large cluster of onlookers and officers obscuring the view, it’s not clear that any actual police brutality is taking place—but it was because of his not-exactly-dispassionate shouting that Ciampa said he couldn’t get the clip picked up by Channel 4, or any local television outlets. He claims that another consequence of his less-than-objective take on the incident was that the arresting officers who patrol his neighborhood harassed him for weeks afterwards.
“I was really angry, which a journalist shouldn’t be,” Ciampa said.
In fact, despite his online claim to be a capital-letters “Citizen Journalist,” he now shies away from the label, though it’s anyone’s to claim. In his mind, he says he hasn’t earned it yet. “He has so many skills as a journalist, a natural journalist, but he doesn’t have the technique,” says Frederico. “You can blog about whatever you want, but only a journalist has a commitment to listen to the other side of the story, to check the facts.”
Ciampa walked into Columbia’s journalism school looking for a “real” journalist to interview about how to do just that. He wanted to get some guidelines on journalistic objectivity, so that he could publish them on his new Web site. Instead, his cell phone rang after a few minutes and he had to go back to setting up tents. He never made it to a public lecture that caught his eye when he walked in the lobby either – about media law on the Web, and whether, in terms of a shield law, bloggers can be considered journalists. Maybe they are and maybe they’re not. Maybe it doesn’t much matter.
In February, the local news outlet NY1 filmed a Bloggers School class held in Midtown, for a segment on how to improve your job prospects in the tough economy. In the news clip, the reporter’s voiceover intones, “While many bloggers are media professionals, experience is certainly not a prerequisite.”
Cut to Ciampa: “It’s leveled the playing field for people who are different levels,” he says. “If you had money back in the day when the printing press was invented, a select few were allowed to have that printing press because of the cost. Now with WordPress, everybody’s able to put out their own bits of news and that’s what makes it special.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified an incident involving a plane part that crashed to earth as a car crash.