The Accidental Journalist
By Eric Lin, Wed May 26 18:00:00 GMT 2004

Mobile technology is making it easier for us to say anything from anywhere to everyone. What happens when anyone can become a journalist, even unwittingly?

Until recently Oh My News, the now famous Korean news site staffed by citizen reporters, seemed like the next evolution of how we would stay informed. Citizens armed with computers and cameraphones constantly on the search for something newsworthy would submit stories to a central, edited website run independent from the major media outlets. Instead something even more democratic and open -- the whole internet, and the people wielding cheap, mobile devices that can access it -- are outgunning major news media.

Thanks to RSS aggregators, news crawlers like Google news, and moblogging sites which post recently uploaded photos to their front pages, everyone has become an instant journalist... whether they intend to be or not. Everything that is written or shown on the internet can make news.

The New Journalists -- Accidental or Otherwise

The soldiers in Iraq weren't trying to make a political statement or make the news when they posted pictures of Abu Ghraib. Pretty much every soldier has a digital camera and internet access they use to share their experience with people back home. Not only does this make every soldier a reporter, it also makes him a one man oversight committee. Just as the soldiers didn't intend to be reporters, they were (even still are) also an unwitting sousveillance machine. Only instead of civilians watching the government from below, they are participants watching from within. The Pentagon is concerned enough that they don't want any digital transmissions leaking from the field without their approval - though rumor of a ban on all digital cameras is highly exaggerated.

Not just soldiers in Iraq, but pretty much every person with these tools, or a cameraphone or some other connected device is somehow compelled to share what he sees or experiences. With the freedom of uploading content directly to the internet, without editors or fact checkers or publishing schedules, these citizens are often beating traditional news outlets to the punch. Recently a newspaper in Brisbane admitted that bystanders with digital cameras beat their own news crew to a fire at a famous hotel there. While the newspaper didn't run any of the photos, it's likely they were up on the internet before the Globe and Mail's story.

There are, of course, professional journalists using these same tools to report news -- even when it's not exclusively for the benefit of a traditional media outlet. Kevin Sites, a freelance reporter keeps a personal diary in addition to covering Iraq for various media outlets, including NBC. Christopher Allbritton is fulfilling Justin Hall's prophecy of using mobile tools as a peer to peer reporter. He raises money from independent sources, using those funds to travel around Iraq and report stories from the front line using simple blogging technology, without an editor or legal team.

Reader Beware

This is a Spiderman moment- with great power comes great responsibility. An un-guarded, un-edited web-o-verse of stories and pictures will no doubt contain false ones as well as true- not that traditional media is impervious to errors, it just guards against them better. While newspapers and large media outlets try to check their own stories, they rarely address news (whether rumor or fact) from the internet. Now that alternative news sources are proving viable and popular, dispelling the internet rumors is just as important as reporting the legitimate stories that start there.

Mobile technology on confounds this situation further, creating a rumor herd of cats that no news source can easily round up. Witness a recent incident in Gilroy, California where a student called in a threat to shoot a teacher. In a classic game of "telephone" rumors spread by phone calls and text messages about what happened varied wildly as they spread from handset to handset in- and outside of the school.

Does this then mean that all bloggers and texters should be fact checking their posts? Probably not. Most blogs don't claim to be news sources, and most bloggers don't consider themselves reporters -- even if they are perceived that way. Until individuals, as opposed to media outlets, become the world's preferred news source, it will be up to readers or trust sources to determine a story's validity. However a future where trusted news comes directly from individuals, who gain a reputation for solid reporting, is not difficult to imagine as the next step in this evolution.