For this exercise we are asked to consider the objectivity and effectiveness of the photograph as a document specifically in the modern era of the phone camera which has driven a movement towards the use of amateur photography in mainstream news reporting.
Commonly referred to as ‘Citizen Journalism’ the practice of utilising social media to source and research news stories as they happen has become the norm throughout the new industry especially for smaller operations such as regional news outlets. Although not limited to these outlets as often the only images or writing to be found about certain strict regimes or highly secretive corporations is through the leaking of information from the individual living or working there.
When considering the types of stories typically highlighted by citizen journalism, I first think of the reporting of low level regional news such as the local accident on the high street or gossip and opinions pieces regarding the political decisions being made by the local council. Seemingly harmless accounts with little reach and little chance to reveal or present conflicting ideas.
But, I do also feel that this relatively small and harmless contribution to the news cycle is what leads to a more dangerous type of narrative. Through the use of citizen journalism for the low level news items outlets are able to tap into and identify their audience and readership, through the use of analytics they are able to farm the type of data needed to shape their articles to suit the audience and drive engagement through comments, likes and shares. This ubiquitous use of citizen journalism also lends more and more credence to the validity of the citizen journalism. The audience become adjusted to trusting this type of account as they feel that its is free from the agenda of news outlets, relevant to their locale and even more true than traditional media as it lacks the polish and refinement of the typical broadsheet. An approach I liken to the success of the tabloid newspaper in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s.
Where we see this impact recently is in the rise of ‘news’ outlets on platforms such as Youtube and Facebook. An obvious example of the abuse of the citizen journalist and the photographs associated with would be the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. Mired in the constant use of grassroots propaganda to promote conspiracy theories and ‘ Fake News’. In this way the citizen journalism was clearer an attempt to malign the public against individuals who didn’t support the political views of the Trump support. Through the use off altered imagery, sometimes blatantly but also subtly to suit its agenda. Sometimes the use of discarded shots which caught unflattering facial gestures and headlined with inflammatory accusations of illness, tiredness and even in extreme cases possession.
Another story which owes much of its success to citizen journalism was the Occupy Wall street movement of 2011. During this protest the movement utilised citizens to raise awareness and gain traction in building a following to enable this event to occur. One of the issues raised about the movement was the report that there was placards with anti-semetic slogans used by sections of the protest. A point potentially easily looked over by the Occupy movement, especially as the citizen journalists involved have their own stake in the outward perception of the movement. The Washington Post has an article (link below) but ironically this is now locked behind a paywall.
In another ironic moment it was the documentary photography of the NYPD Technical Research Assistance Unit that provided some of the evidence that perjury was committed by NYPD officers in several cases against members of the Occupy movement, ultimately leading to the dismissal of charges.
When considering the use of citizen journalism and its usefulness in modern news reporting we have to consider, as with any information, art and documentary several factors before we can decide on the validity of the source and its objectivity.
We can see that the creators of the conspiracy theories have as much to gain from their creations as the protestors have to protect. The goals may be different and motives opposite but the main driver of promoting their beliefs and agendas in the most positive light is shared.
News outlets are in a world where revenues generated from traditional media is ever decreasing and they have an endless sense of pressure to gain traction in the audience to drive advertising revenue to prop up their business. Many journalist and photographers are also feeling the pinch of the lack of traditional media supporting and employing what we would consider professionals.
Citizen journalism offers us a way to view the world separate from these issues, they provide the channels to discover the inaccessible. They are less likely to be influenced by the need to monetise their contributions and depending on the type of report may actually stand to loss their freedoms or jobs when reporting issues such as working conditions.
But just as we must question the agenda of the professional journalist we must question the personal agenda of the individual. The new found power for the citizen journalist lends power to the personal interpretation and agenda of that individual. The lack of investigative training and technical ability of the photography could lead to mistruth and mis-interpretations.
We must also remember that every story whether citizen journalism or ‘professional’ will always pass through a series of selections. The imagery, the writing, the platform and the timelines all picked to achieve the best result for that outlet.
The factors I feel we must always consider when considering these points are in summary;
Who was the source?
Why is this news being submitted?
What stake does the source have in the story?
What other sources are available?
What does my own common sense tell me about what I see?