Here comes everybody
By Hajrah Mumtaz
The rise in recent years of internet media, and the subsequent ease with which the average citizen can publish news and views, has become quite controversial in journalistic circles. One side argues that this is not ‘true’ journalism: that the barrage of information means that the significant is drowned by the pedestrian, that there is no way of independently substantiating ‘news’ that you find on the internet, and that journalism is a specialised field that requires special skills.
The other side argues that these, precisely, are the very characteristics that make the so-called citizens’ journalism so important: it comprises the news and views of the people on the ground, the ones who see things as they are happening and as the end-users of journalism. The field of journalism, this side maintains, has become far too dependent on the process of earning revenue, so that journalistic integrity often ends up being sacrificed to marketing concerns. Further, formal journalism requires a process of filtration, which is inevitable in any news organisation but which means that news is dealt with as a commodity. Citizen journalists, according to this view, are more likely to present unbiased reporting because they have no axe to grind, no spin to sell, and no money to make.
Certain parts of both sides of the argument are logical, and as in all such matters, there is no right and wrong. The fact is that the internet is a reality, and people will — whether we like it not — continue to put up their views. This cannot be judged as a good thing or a bad thing — it just is.
Here in Pakistan, two newsworthy stories of recent times appeared first on the internet. First, there was the so-called Â‘flogging video’ showing a girl being whipped by bearded men that one assumed were the Taliban. Subsequently picked up by television channels and the newspapers, the video played an important part in swinging the tide of public opinion against the Taliban-led militants and in favour of army action against them. If one goes through the newspapers from those weeks, one sees that until then the debate revolved around the “but all they want is Shariah” lines. The video, uploaded by an anonymous source and of indeterminate veracity, created a furore that eventually resulted in the public recognition of and anger against the brutality of the Taliban.
A second story that surfaced last fall through the internet was a video that appeared to show soldiers of the Pakistan army beating some men who seemed to have been detained for interrogation. Again, it was impossible to ascertain the veracity of this video. What it did, however, was bring into sharp prominence allegations that some human rights groups had been levelling against the army for some time (and continue to do so): that it is perpetrating human rights abuses against suspects and detainees in areas where anti-militant operations are under way. The army promised an inquiry into the brutality apparently depicted in the video, but beyond that, the story dropped out of the headlines. Nevertheless, these two cases illustrate both the power of internet-facilitated citizens’ journalism, and the inherent danger.
To argue purely theoretically, consider the fact that both these videos could have been faked if someone was willing to go to enough trouble. Veiled women, bearded men and uniforms of the Pakistan army are not that hard to come by. And neither is it theoretically difficult to stage either scene and then upload it, posing as the truth. As for why, well, a truly lateral mind could have thought like this: we need to turn public opinion against the Taliban, and we need something shocking enough to have every average Joe in the street rise up in a shared anger over it — and so came up with the flogging scene. And a similar twisty mind could have dreamt up a relatively simple method of either discrediting the army, or of highlighting a potential abuse problem so that it could then be addressed.
Both these scenarios are, of course, extremely unlikely; yet they nevertheless serve for the purposes of a theoretical argument. The point is this: both these videos were posted anonymously, with no indicators as to the time or place of the incidents, or the identity of the people depicted. In other words, there was no possibility of assigning responsibility — not of the events shown, but of the fact of them entering the news media. Here is where citizens’ journalism becomes somewhat dangerous. These same videos could have been sent — even anonymously — to a newspaper or a television channel. In that case, though, while the reporter may have decided to protect his source, he would nevertheless have had an idea or made an attempt to find out who was involved and where it happened. The story would have been published under a particular journalist’s name, who would then have been implicitly responsible for the contents of his story. Having a name to a news story, you see, is quite important. The “here comes everybody” sort of journalism, on the other hand, does not allow for such defined assignation of responsibility. Citizens’ ‘journalism’ can boast of many things, one of them being an important alerting system for a breaking story. What it cannot boast of, however, is the process of distillation that defines true journalism: choices of material, be they word or image, made with the purpose of presenting the truest, fairest and most succinct picture of any event or situation. To be a journalist, as New York Times’ columnist Roger Cohen once wrote, is to bear witness.
Citizens’ journalism has its uses, but it can be dangerous because of its nebulous nature. Formal journalism has the advantage of authenticated sources, owning to responsibility and performing a duty. Precisely because journalists are paid to do what they do, they generally make every attempt to do it as well as possible.