How citizen journalism has become a global force

Bloggers and Tweeters have taken news reporting into their own hands and are changing the face of journalism, reports Michael Buerk, of the BBC.

More than eight out of 10 Americans have a mobile phone according to the International Association for Wireless Telecommunication, a industry trade body.

A majority of those mobile phones don't just make calls and send text; they can also take and transmit photographs.

According to one estimate, there are more than two billion camera phones in circulation worldwide.

The proliferation of mobile phones have spawned issues unheard of a mere decade ago. Privacy concerns have led camera phones being banned in fitness clubs across the country. Many government buildings also don't allow them for security reasons.

But there are also opportunities in having so many people able to immediately capture images of events around them. In 2006, Yahoo and Reuters introduced an effort to showcase photos and videos of news events taken by the public. This is just one example of numerous attempts to harness the news gathering ability of the shutter-happy, wireless, connected masses.  

Some media analysts point to the 2004 tsunami as THE event when this type of citizen journalism reached critical mass.

The disaster was so widespread, traditional journalists couldn't immediately cover it all. But many of the tourists who survived the tsunami, as well as those who lived in the area, were armed with the means to rapidly transmit vivid images of the devastation.

 More recently, the aftermath of the disputed Iranian presidential election was broadcast around the world, courtesy of images provided by protestors. Mainstream journalists were mostly barred from covering the demonstrations.

This egalitarian approach to newsgathering has many singing its praises, but is it journalism?

In the developed world, the argument is around how the Internet is changing social interactions and killing traditional newspapers and broadcast. But in countries run by totalitarian regimes, it promises nothing less than the end of tyranny.

 Take Myanmar, Burma, where even going online is considered a dissident act.

"We've got Gmail, we've got Gtalk, we've got mobile phones, satellite phones; so it's very difficult for authoritarian regimes, particularly a regime like we have in Burma, to really keep a lid on," said a Burmese blogger. He is one in only 40,000 people in the country who can get on the Internet.

When a cyclone struck last year in the country, the government tried to stop the full extent of the death and destruction being known. But it couldn't stop its new citizen journalists from contacting the BBC.

The head of the BBC's Burmese section, Tin Htar Swe, remembers one in particular: "We asked him, how many dead bodies did you see? And he said hundreds. And of course everybody was very nervous because there’s no way we can verify this story, but we did put it out and it turned out to be true. In the end they admitted over 100,000 people were killed."

Fourteen journalists and two bloggers are currently in jail as the Burmese government attempts to choke off this source of news.

"As you know, Burma is a closed society, and we are not allowed to have reporters in the country. The government is clamping down on anyone who carries a camera. Somebody with a microphone or recorder, they would be immediately arrested. It's one of the few methods, the few access, we have to ... what is happening inside the country ... through the very brave people who are willing to pass the information to us."

In Iran, the conflict between Internet and regime went to the streets in the wake of the disputed presidential election. Iran has the Middle East's most militant bloggers, and the government is determined to bring them under control. Five million websites have already been blocked. But it's the citizen journalists who are telling the world what was happening on the streets.

 Six days after the disputed election, vast crowds marched through the capital.

The foreign press is banned from the rallies, but defiant demonstrators filmed the events themselves and sent them to the BBC. 

Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning columnist in the Middle East, says the citizen journalism she saw happening in Iran was significant.

 "I heard a young Iranian woman say that this is the first time in her country's history where Iranian themselves were able to set the agenda," said Eltahawy.

"Say what was happening, shoot the footage and show the world the picture of themselves they wanted the world to see. "

Glenn Renolds is a law professor in Tennessee, and who some consider the "king of bloggers." He has a blog called Instapundit, one of the most widely read political blogs in the US. He says you have to be careful when it comes to news in the digital information age, but then you had to in the old one.

"The big trend that's going on in this century technologically, and it's not all about journalism by any means, is that technologies are lowering the minimum efficient scale for doing things. So the things that used to be done only by large organizations with a lot of staff can now be done by individuals and small groups."

Renolds says while citizen journalism isn't yet at the level of professional journalism, it isn't too far behind.

"One of the big complaints about citizen journalism is that you don't see the kind of sustained, investigative journalism that you see from big media. And to a point, that's a fair critique. What makes it a less fair critique is the fact that you don't see that kind of journalism that much from big media anymore either."

Dan Gillmor, author of the book "We the Media," is scathing about the failures of traditional journalism.

"There was a wholesale, mass failure of the journalists to do their jobs. The run-up to the Iraq War was a classic market failure of journalism in the United States because it was catastrophic. Their failure to cover what was going on and to be honest was catastrophic for journalism, and I believe, for this nation. I think a lot of people's trust level has crumbled somewhat.

"The new technologies, the new ability to create media means ... in every topic you can think of, there's at least somebody who is picking a very narrow niche -- with a very limited audience, but a passionate one -- and going incredibly deep. Journalism is, and news is, becoming a conversation as opposed to the lecture mode of the past."

Gillmor believes that collectively, the audience always knows a lot more than the journalist could ever know about any single topic.

"No matter how expert one is in anything, the audience for that knows more collectively. By definition, the people who care about a topic collectively have to know more than any one person."

* In this video of the film Burma VJ by acclaimed filmmaker Anders Østergaard, we are brought closer to the courageous citizen video journalists in Burma who risk torture and imprisonment in their efforts to keep up the flow of news from their country. Their material is smuggled out of Burma and broadcast back into the country via satellite and offered as free usage for international media. The whole world has witnessed single event clips made by the VJs, but for the very first time, their individual images have been carefully put together and at once, they tell a much bigger story.