Hurricane Victims, a.k.a. Amateur Journalists
As Hurricane Isabel rips through the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and leaves countless victims in its wake, an army of writers and photojournalists are covering the storm's impact -- far greater in numbers than have ever covered a hurricane before.
It's not that the journalism profession has seen an upswell in employment. Rather, it's because a growing number of citizens -- often, victims of the storm's wrath -- are serving as volunteer journalists for this major news story, their work being published by professional news organizations as a supplement to the reporting and photography of professional journalists.
"We media" has joined "we-tell-you media."
Digital alters the news landscape
Some significant developments in the new media world have been swelling to change journalism recently. One of the most notable is the ubiquity of digital cameras, and the growing usage of cell phones with built-in cameras.
For this major news story, a growing number of East Coast citizens are snapping photos of hurricane damage that they see -- at their homes, during their travels around their communities -- and then sending the images, plus short text explanations, to news outlets. That's not entirely new behavior, of course, but the growth of digital cameras and photo phones is increasing the activity.
It's simple enough to snap a picture with a digital camera, download it to a PC, then e-mail it off to a news outlet. It's even simpler -- and much, much faster -- to snap a digital image with a photo phone, click a couple buttons, and immediately send off the photo of, say, a tree that's crushed a house.
News organizations are starting to get wise to this growing army of citizen camera- and phone-toting photojournalists, so Hurricane Isabel was a prime news story to put the public photos notion to work and request that the public send in photos and first-person text accounts of their hurricane experiences. Certainly not all news organizations in the storm zone are letting the public be part of the reporting process, but a growing number are. A few examples:
- WVEC.com in Hampton Roads, Virginia, has a great "Isabel Blog" that solicits and publishes citizen reports and photographs of local Isabel damage. Citizens send in their photos and written explanation via e-mail, and web editors select the best ones to add to the Blog and for a citizen photo page. WVEC is a Belo property, which accounts for its cyber-savvyness. Credit for the Isabel Blog idea goes to Andrea Panciera at Belo's ProJo.com website (in Rhode Island).
- This isn't as good as WVEC.com's implementation of citizen photos, but the website of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., is using its Forums area to receive citizen reports of hurricane experience and photographs.
- WashingtonPost.com is asking its users to send in photos, but at this writing it wasn't clear what the site was going to do with them. Editor Dan Froomkin says, "We look forward to seeing what we get." The call for citizen photos is placed in "shoulder boxes" that run on the right side of hurricane-coverage pages.
- WeatherBug, an Internet weather service and stand-alone application used by some 25 million online users, is collecting citizen hurricane photos, with short accompanying captions identifying location. (Arch-competitor Weather.com has not boarded the citizen-reporting/photos bandwagon.)
- To see the citizen-photo concept in full-blown form, try a website called Be The News, which regularly publishes photos from ordinary citizens who experience major news events like Hurricane Isabel.
Of course, it's not just news organizations that are publishing citizen reporting. In these blog-happy days, people living in the hurricane zone are blogging their own experiences. The Isabel Blog, by book editor Valerie MacEwan, is a fine example, featuring short descriptions of what it's like living as a hurricane approaches and then passes over, plus a collection of her digital photos.
(Hint to news organizations: Consider seeking out the best such first-person blogs and get permission to republish them. It's easy enough to find Isabel blogs via the Daypop search engine.)
Citizen journalism moves forward
As I sit here in weather-calm Boulder, Colo., doing an armchair analysis of citizen journalism in action, a few thoughts occur to me:
- News publishers remain cautious about the notion of citizen reporting. Only Belo's WVEC.com effectively promotes the public photos and stories on its homepage. By contrast, the News & Observer site gives them much less prominence, preferring to highlight staff hurricane photos.
- Images and first-hand accounts from the public in a story like this can be equally as compelling as those produced by professional staff journalists. Many sites that I found while researching this story featured staff and wire-service photo slide shows. I'd like to see accompanying citizen-photo slide shows -- on equal footing, not buried and difficult to find.
- A news organization's limited number of photographers can't be everywhere during a story like this. A limited number of reporters can't interview every person who has a significant hurricane story to tell. By allowing the public a place on your website, or in your newspaper, your news organization does a better job of telling the complete story.
- None of this should be taken as a suggestion that photojournalists or reporters are less needed because of citizen "journalists." I look at it this way: There can never be enough journalists on staff to do a really big story justice. They're going to miss smaller stories within the story. Digital cameras and the Internet allow a news organization to do a better job by inviting the public to participate in the newsgathering process. Readers and online users are better served. Professional journalists are as important as ever.
- Next time a story as big as this one appears, I hope yet more news organizations will decide that it's time to deploy the citizen journalism brigade.