In 1991, a Los Angeles-area eyewitness with a video camera taped seven police officers while they brutally beat Rodney King. No one knew then that citizen footage--a news-item novelty at the time--would eventually become a news phenomenon.
While crowdsourced video becomes more and more common, those taking advantage of the medium are both benefiting from its reach and dealing with the dilemmas it presents, according to a recent report from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).
"If the rise of video has created new opportunities and increased accountability, however, it has also created increased challenges for journalism," writes Jane Sasseen, the report's author. (You can read the full report in .PDF here.)
Video-equipped mobile phones have brought into focus important issues that may have otherwise been overlooked. During the most heated moments of the Arab Spring, 100,000 videos were uploaded to YouTube from Egypt, according to the report. The most popular 23 videos were viewed roughly 5.5 million times.
“In countries where there has been repression of traditional media, video has been absolutely crucial; it has played an astonishing role,” said George Azar, a Lebanese-American photographer currently producing documentaries for Al Jazeera, in the report.
But news organizations that re-post these videos or use them as the foundation for more in-depth pieces often don't know how credible they really are.
The report points out that the videos may be enhanced to push certain political agendas, so some news organizations devote substantial resources to verifying citizen video reports. The BBC, for example, has more than 20 staffers watching over its user-generated content hub.
Another issue of concern, the report says, is the safety of the people shooting video. Even bystanders who happen to appear in a video may face fatal consequences. The Guardian Project's Obscuracam, introduced in March, is one tool that has been developed to prevent such backlash. Like the previous version created for photo stills, it can obscure faces and wipe out background data like location, time and phone model.
Still, citizen video is growing rapidly, especially in the developing world, where rates in these areas have almost tripled in the last six years to 4.5 billion mobile subscribers, according to the report. Their mobile use is currently at 79 percent.
Poised to become even more common, crowdsourced video is likely to present even greater questions in the future.
“It’s increasingly likely, as we move further into a video-mediated era, that people in vulnerable situations will feel the need to get video out but may not have thought through the consequences,” said Sam Gregory, program director for Witness, in the report. “At a news level, this needs more discussion.”
To read the full report, click here (pdf).
Photo by Americanvirus, used with a CC-license