Andrew Heavens gave an amazing seminar on photoblogging at the Digital Citizen Indaba a few weeks back. One idea that stuck with me from his talk: “The camera doesn’t matter, but being there does.” More important than having the right gear is being in the right place to take an important photo. Andrew’s one of the few photojournalists in Ethiopia, so he’s able to share images that no one else is able to.
Two of the key examples almost everyone – myself included – gives when explaining the idea that people can “commit acts of journalism” without neccesarily being journalists are the photos taken in Thailand of the Southeast Asian tsunami and in the London underground after the tube bombings. Like the citizen video of the Rodney King beating, these documents demonstrated that journalist in the future is going to involve professionals as well as people who happened to be there with the opportunity to record what they saw.
While there’s no doubt that Andrew’s right and that being there is critical to some types of online publishing, I wonder if we don’t sometimes oversell the importance of “being there” as part of citizen media. Much of the rhetoric around the importance of citizen media – including the rhetoric I deliver roughly once a week these days – is about diversifing the media by introducing more local voices – people in their own communities who can report their own news. But I think there’s another place where citizen’s media may be at least as important – introducing citizen expertise on subjects where existing journalists may not be expert.
I found myself exploring this train of thought as I talked with Professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh yesterday. Hibbitts is the founder of Jurist, a remarkable website that covers legal news around the US and, increasingly, the world, primarily through the efforts of University of Pittsburgh law students. Students write original articles on legal issues, often providing legal context for stories reported in other media.
Hibbitts tells me that an inspiration for the site was the realization that newspapers were eliminating their legal reporters, combining legal reporting with crime or political reporting. Reporting on a legal story often requires sophisticated knowledge of the law – many of the best legal reporters are lawyers or have a legal background. By asking law students to work as legal reporters, Jurist gives a lawyer’s perspective on a wide range of news on a daily basis.
(There’s a long history of asking law students to take on professional responsibilities while they’re still in school. Unlike most professional journals, law journals are edited by students, inverting usual power dynamics by giving students the chance to edit and select papers for publication by their professors and their colleagues.)
It’s interesting to think about other subjects where citizen media might be able to bring expertise to the table that professional journalists might lack. When Grigoi Perelman refused the Field Medal for his work proving Poincaire’s conjecture, most newspapers didn’t even attempt to explain the substance of Perelma’s work – it would have been interesting to see how a citizen media site with mathematician reporters would have covered the story. (Alas, Wikinews, which likely had mathematicians reporting the story didn’t do much better. At least they tried.) Mathematician reporters would also have an interesting set of insights on stories involving economic statistics, statistical analysis, climate change extrapolations… it makes you wonder why math departments aren’t encouraging projects like Jurist.
As we talked about the similarities and differences between Jurist and Global Voices, I realized that while some of GV’s strength is about where our contributors are – all around the world, in countries not sufficiently covered by mainstream media – some of our strength comes from what we know, especially what our editors know. Our Africa editor, Ndesanjo Macha, is living in North Carolina, pretty far from his home in Tanzania. But he’s got great knowledge of African politics and issues and is able to use that knowledge to make content decisions despite not being on the ground. Ditto for Neha Viswanathan who covers India from the UK, and several of our other excellent editors.
It’s easier to talk about citizen media in terms of “being there” because it’s less threatening to existing media outlets – everyone understands that no newspaper can have a bureau in every corner of the world, and that the citizen with a camera will sometimes be the best first source of information on a story. But it’s a bit more threatening to talk about citizen media filling holes in journalists’ expertise. Most journalists aren’t physicists, currency traders or airplane pilots – when covering those subjects, maybe it’s helpful for the journalists and the physicists, traders and pilots to work together.