Like everything else, journalism is going through a transformation like never before. With new media and the Internet quickly becoming the dominant force for the way news is distributed, the notion of what it means to be a journalist is rapidly changing. Take for example all the civilians who are blogging and posting videos from […]
Like everything else, journalism is going through a transformation like never before. With new media and the Internet quickly becoming the dominant force for the way news is distributed, the notion of what it means to be a journalist is rapidly changing. Take for example all the civilians who are blogging and posting videos from conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia. Are they now considered journalists?
Every time I hear about another journalist being maimed, or worse, killed, I can’t help but feel a sense of personal loss. Irrespective of the competitive nature of the news “business” there is a special bond that exists between journalists and photographers who cover conflict. The relationship runs deep and every time a colleague is wounded or killed, the news of his or her misfortune reverberates across the entire industry. Irrespective of race, religion and/or nationality, there are two key factors that tie every journalist together: a quest for knowledge and a longing for adventure.
I have been asked time and again why so many journalists have died in recent years. There are a number of reasons, including the obvious, which is the very nature of the job. When you put yourself in harm’s way there is always the chance you will come out injured, or worse, dead. The majority of the journalists who get killed while covering a war are not necessarily reckless; they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a second factor that I believe is also responsible for the increased number of deaths and that is the sheer number of people working in media today. Never in our history have there been so many individuals claiming to be journalists, photographers and or videographers.
When I began my career in the early 1980s, I could name every news photographer and just about every foreign journalist who was based in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Besides the locally-based photographers, I knew most of the “firemen” (a term used for members of the press who were sent in to cover hotspots around the world) who frequently flew in from Paris, London and other news hubs when a big story broke.
For years it remained like this with little change. Granted there was always the odd newcomer who moved to the region, but by and large it was the same old “gang” covering the region year after year. The reason for this was in part due to the lack of technology and the difficulty in filing stories, photographs and video footage.
It was one thing to get to a war zone; it was a whole other story trying to get the information out. Up until the digital revolution, I had to develop my films, make photographic prints using an enlarger, type my captions on a portable Smith-Corona typewriter and then transmit the photos over a landline that at best was unreliable, using a device that was quite cumbersome when compared to the modern day laptop computer. A black and white photograph took roughly eight minutes, and a color photo took three times that if you were lucky and there were no technical glitches.
In 1989, I was given a film negative scanner/transmitter, which greatly reduced the amount of equipment needed on assignment, but regardless of the improvement in scanning technology, I still had to develop the films and rely on sub-standard telephone lines to get my images out of the Middle East and Africa. When normal telephone communication was unavailable, such was the case in Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia, I had to rely on the infamous “portable” two-suitcase satellite telephone that weighed nearly 200 kilograms. Looking back now, it all seemed so long ago; but in reality, I only stopped using film cameras for work just prior to the 9/11 attack on New York and Washington.
Depending on which press watchdog you ask, between 70 and 140 media workers and journalist died in 2012, making it one of the deadliest years. Thirty-five fatalities were recorded in Syria alone, followed by Somalia with 18. Part of the discrepancy in the numbers killed has clearly to do with the introduction of “citizen journalists” working on their own accord from home. Up until a decade ago, there was no grey area and what classified a person as a journalist from someone who was not was very clear.
Even though the term “citizen journalist” has been around since the mid-1980s, its worldwide impact has only been felt within the last decade. In the past, it was normal practice for “citizens” to provide reporters with information about something they witnessed. Today, however, “citizens” are the ones turning to social media and reporting the news. Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, the blogosphere and other web-based outlets did not exist a decade ago and now they are commonplace for information. Since I began my career, we have gone from an era of very limited news coverage to one where there is just way too much unsubstantiated information being disseminated.
Because of the competitive nature of the news, traditional providers — such as network television, news wire services, newspapers etc. — are fearful of being left out on a limb, so when a big story breaks, they all turn to social media to get their information.
Take CNN, for example; they were the first to introduce the “ireport” a clever play on words, which gives the average citizen the power to inform the public what’s happening in their area by way of CNN. The only difference between someone anonymously posting something on YouTube and a television airing the footages is the established networks still have a legal obligation to protect themselves against slander. How often have I heard the following warning from a television news anchor just before their station is about to air some amateur video: “We cannot independently verify the authenticity of this video footage that you are about to see.“
Twenty years ago if a story broke that seemed unbelievable there was a check and balance of sorts whereby an individual and or a news organization would be accountable for the content that was aired or printed. Today, it would be nearly impossible to verify the authenticity of all the information being posted online.
Many years ago I had a friend who was a photographer based in Paris. He was a “fireman” so to speak, and I would often bump into him when we were covering the same story. I remember once we were both invited to a formal dinner event that had nothing to do with work. When I showed up, my friend was at the entrance, smartly dressed, but around his neck he had his camera, camera bag and video camera. I said, “Why all the cameras? It’s just a dinner party.”
“Norbert I never go anywhere without at least one camera, two lenses, a flash and a video camera; you never know when something big is going to happen!”
The idea of getting exclusive footage today is almost unthinkable what with all the small camera phones floating around and the easy access to the Internet. Before the professional would have had a chance to pull his camera out of his bag “citizen journalists” would have taken the footage and posted it on YouTube.
The only difference is that back in the day, if the footage was newsworthy, my friend would have been paid a hefty fee for the content by the television networks. Today, the same footage would be offered up free of charge.
I can sum this up best by quoting the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changing.”