Traditional journalism is far from flawless but there are codes, rules, and it is underpinned by the knowledge that at least in theory the basics of ‘Who What Why When Where’ should be followed, and, where possible, two sides of a story are given. This is especially true of British and American broadcast journalism. As noted, this journalism is flawed, but it has checks and balances.
Much of what is called ‘Citizen journalism’ does not appear to attempt to find more than one point of view, nor does it bother with troublesome facts.
There was an example of this in Baltimore last night as erroneous reports of the police shooting of a black man spread like wildfire through the city and quickly the world.
The original mistake was made by a Fox News reporter who will no doubt by now have been hauled over the coals by management and will have learned a valuable lesson in live reporting – whereever possible attribute, if unsure – say so. Reporting has changed in the 24/7 era and it is acceptble to say ‘This is what we know now, this is who says so, this is what is being said – we are checking that’. Fox News has apologized.
However, what followed was a lesson in the negative side of social media and news events. Twitter exploded with the news, social media sprang into action.
Over and over again it was said that Baltimore police had tweeted that a man had been shot whereas what the actual police tweet said was ‘reports that a man has been shot are being investigated’.
There were agonized tweets of ‘OMG what are the cops thinking!’ variety which assumed both that the event had happened, and that this was another Ferguson.
Then a live stream video appeared, purporting to be reporting what had happened and further fuelling anger.
(Update) Some of the commentary now appears to be missing from the original live stream. The footage was later uploaded onto You Tube where there is some confusing commentary about ‘this is live footage’ but then ‘as you’re going to see here’. In the original video post this commentary was not heard, nor were there any remarks about ‘confusion’.
In both videos the cameramen, or a person next to him, repeatedly asserts that a man has been shot, then goes on to say that a man in handcuffs has been shot. He names the street and calls on people to descend on the neighborhood.
A quick look at the early stages of the footage suggests all is not as being ‘reported’ There is no blood coming from the man on the ground, nor are the police attempting any sort of medical assistance as, with a hundred cameras trained on them, they surely would.
If he were in fact suffering from gunshot wounds then the people around him would not have been helping the situation by crowding around, nor would their close presence, and the call to come to the district, have helped an ambulance get in and out quickly. A policewoman is heard telling people to move back to make room for the ambulance.
At no point is the cameraman heard to be trying to discover what has happened. He repeats rumour as fact, and potentially inflames the situation by calling on crowds to descend on the area.
By now, without asking anyone anything the narrator adds a new ‘fact’ about where the man was shot.
‘Baltimore police just shot a man in the back – tweet it out’. Another ‘fact’ is added ‘They had a man in cuffs and they shot him in the back’. Finally there is a diagnosis that ‘The man is dying on the street’ before repeated calls to take to the streets.
What actually appears to have happened is that the police arrested a young man for allegedly carrying a handgun, someone told the reporter he had been shot, and things spiraled from there.
This is not to defend the initial mistake, which appears to deserve criticism, and was corrected after some frantic efforts in newsrooms to get facts established. Nor can the people on the street be blamed for their anger given the litany of police brutality against black people across America for decades. However there was no attempt to discover what had happened by the narrator of the footage, only an emotional repetition of rumour and falsehoods.
This is an example of why such filming should not be called citizen journalism. It has nothing to do with journalism. It is activism, and just as mainstream journalism can at times behave in an irresponsible manner, so can activism of this sort.