on citizen journalism

Something has been weighing on me for a while now. It became more evident during the final weeks leading up to the election and then became top of mind again for me with the United incident last weekend. I’m not going to go into any details of those. I think we’ve all read and seen about enough.

We have historically relied on mass media to keep us informed about local, national and global events. Relentless journalists who exhausted every lead and overturned every rock to protect the greater good and help keep us honest. That’s one of the reasons I originally chose to get my undergraduate degree in journalism. That was longer ago than I like to think about and things have definitely changed.

There has been an understandable decline in profits and circulation of print media. So many things are available in the immediacy of a digital format and by the time news hits the front page of tomorrow’s papers it’s not really news any more. There are several speciality magazines that continue to thrive (Men’s Health for example) and an increasing number of iconic titles, such as US News & World Report,  have ceased print publication. This hasn’t diminished the bombardment of messaging and “news” at every turn.

We all have our preferred media outlets for news (mine happens to be Reuters). Why do we have favorites? Because we follow and trust the outlets that we agree with.  You pick your news source because you agree that they are “fair and balanced” or you like the fact they provided the questions to a particular candidate ahead of a debate or maybe because the debate moderator is showing favoritism to the person you plan to give your vote.

Journalism, in its purest form, is the collection, editing and reporting of facts. It is not the presenting of opinions or sensationalism. Let me be very clear here- those in the media are not necessarily journalists.

Don’t believe the media sway popular opinion at their whim? Think you’re being protected by legions of true journalists out trying to fight the good fight? Try this on for size. There are basically five actual news outlets. That’s right, five. If we remove Facebook and Alphabet (Google) then five media conglomerates control 90 percent of mass media in the United States. All of them have ties to the establishment and the power-elite in this country.  Viacom, News Corp, Bertelsmann, Time Warner and The Walt Disney Company control most of the newspapers, magazines, books and broadcast stations in the United States. This gives them the leverage to manipulate, and even control, our social, political, economic and moral values.

With the majority of mass media reporting on behalf of “the man,” investigative and cause-based news became everyone’s obligation. Everyday citizens armed with a cell phone, Twitter account and an opinion began to report the events and injustices of their surroundings. I’ll talk about a sociological shift from this a bit more in a few days.

During the Twitter Revolution back in 2009, Iranians began going around state-controlled media to protest election results on Twitter. This was a brave, groundbreaking and seismic evolutionary event. While this wasn’t its exact genesis, citizen journalism was born out of this civil disobedience. Yes, it had existed on a small scale before then but it dominated the world stage and on this day revolutionaries wrote the world’s headlines. How amazing it was.

Fast forward to present day and things aren’t so amazing. In the years since the elections in Iran, the need for citizens to report the truth has grown exponentially.  The statistics shared earlier about media conglomerates speak for themselves. Remember though, people like to get news that agrees withy their views. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that people also like to report “news” that backs up or reinforces their views and personal biases. That’s not to deny the need for citizen journalism. People need to take out their phones and record abuse by the system, human rights violations, wrongful yielding of authority, unsuitable living conditions and countless other matters. So often a video goes viral and the Internet reacts. We all jump on the hate wagon- I did as much just this week. It’s important to stop and think about what else is going on off camera and outside the frame. What other factors, people or events are driving the scene that everyone is watching? Just because something is recorded and posted doesn’t make it injustice. Just because something is recorded and posted doesn’t make it news. And just because something is recorded and posted doesn’t make it criminal or illegal. Sometimes, though, it very much does. Viewers and consumers of media need to learn to tell the difference. We all need to separate the factual wheat from the sensationalized chaff.

Here’s an alternative, a challenge. Put down the camera. Society needs the documentarians to capture the fight and tell the story. But what it needs more is the planting of feet and locking of arms in defiance, the common belief that good will always win, the extending of a hand to help someone whose been pushed down, a hug of compassion, a word of kindness, a tear of empathy and a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Put down the damn camera and act. Don’t capture the act- be the act.

When the smoke clears, the protest signs come down, the rights are wronged and skies clear, we must find beauty. Pick up the camera now and capture a smile. Film a belly laugh. Photograph the embrace with those you love and those who love you back. Record a toast and the singing of a song of praise.

Injustice needs to be captured, it needs to be shared, it needs to be forced into the collective field of vision. But so does joy. So does beauty.

header photo is not my own. 





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