We’re all Zapruders now (but that doesn’t make us journalists)


General Photography


Just before the Christmas Eve Mass 2009, a woman with apparent mental problems jumped a barrier and tried to reach Pope Benedikt who was moving towards the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica. Bodyguards managed to tackle the woman, but in the ensuing scrum, the Pope ended up falling to the ground. It was probably inevitable that video footage of the event would make the news - taken by someone a few rows away from the event. Stills from the low-resolution movie were used in news articles to show the event, and I was struck by the similarities with the famous Zapruder film.

Of course, the events were vastly different, but if you look at just the movies and the ways they were made, they were strikingly similar: Grainy footage that, when viewed as a movie, gives a somewhat blurry idea of what happened; while individual images/stills are too unclear to really show anything other than a general idea that something has happened (as an aside, in the little comparison of two stills above, notice the difference between film grain and digital noise!). With cell phone cameras being ubiquitous we are all potential Zapruders now.

I don’t ever recall hearing or seeing anyone describe Abraham Zapruder as a “citizen journalist”. He was seen as what we was: A chance bystander who happened to have a camera (and use it) the moment the American president was shot and killed. These days, there is a lot of talk of “citizen journalists” - people who, like Zapruder, happen to be somewhere with their cameras (often cell phones) when something happens (like in the case of the Pope). It’s not that clear what it is that turns today’s chance bystanders into journalists.

Maybe this is all because Zapruder lived in the day and age of Walter Cronkite, whereas today, America’s most trusted journalist is a comedian. Of course, the reason for this is not that Jon Stewart is a comedian, it is because Stewart cares about the facts - and not the people (politicians etc.) he happens to agree with. Take away the jokes, and The Daily Show embodies the essence of good journalism.

It is no real surprise that a lot of The Daily Show’s contents derives directly from how other news programs work. Just take the balloon boy hoax (I’m linking to CNN’s page on purpose), where major US networks spent a whole day covering the story of a young boy supposedly caught in a balloon that had taken off. For a whole day, that story - with live coverage - pushed aside all other issues, regardless of how relevant they actually were.

Here we seem to have the real connection with “citizen journalism”: Because journalism has become a business just like any other business, splashy stories dominate over seemingly boring content. And the ultimate goal, of course, is to have images or, better still, movies that show events. That’s where the chance bystanders with their cell-phone cameras enter - they provide footage where there was no camera crew. But for a world obsessed with cutting costs, it’s even better: You not only get more footage, you also get it for free!

So it is absolutely no surprise that in a journalistic environment driven by business needs (The Market Loves The New York Times Layoffs is an actual headline) “citizen journalism” is hailed.

Of course, the chance bystander might indeed provide us with footage that adds something to a story. But what one has to realize is that the chance bystander will almost inevitably produce event-driven footage. Something is happening, and someone, who happens to be on the scene, takes a photo. But that’s not all journalists or photojournalists do. It’s one thing to grab your cell phone and take a quick picture when someone tackles the Pope, but it’s quite another thing to (for example) pack your bag, travel thousands of miles to Afghanistan, and spend weeks there to get pictures of the war.

Imagine you had a news crew covering your life: Would you want your life to get reduced to a rib you happened to break and to whatever other splashy fortunes (won forty dollars on a scratch ticket) or misfortunes (had a flat tire) you experienced, while ignoring all of the “boring” stuff that might shape your life? As it turns out many people have a “journalist” covering their own life: They do it themselves, on Facebook (or Twitter). What many people do is to literally post anything that is going on as a “status update”. Seen that way, everything becomes an event, because everything is deemed relevant enough for the world (or the set of friends) to know: Now that is true citizen journalism!

Of course, if we take Facebook status updates, it is immediately clear that calling those journalism is absurd, and it is obvious why: Journalists make selections, they weed out the relevant from the irrelevant. The Facebook citizen journalists, covering their own lives, don’t: I just had a bog bowl of cereal for breakfast. On the plane, seat 14C. OMG, my cat just made the cutest sound.

It’s very, very important for us to realize what we have to lose when we treat chance bystanders as journalists, while, at the same time, refusing to fund actual journalists - and it’s important to realize that these two issues are actually connected: They’re the two sides of the same coin. Getting to see images that someone took just because s/he happened to be there is great, but it does not replace the work of actual journalists. And getting chance images also does not make the news or journalistic stories better per se, because we still need someone to sort things for us, to put things into perspective, to assign someone to cover something “boring” that we still need to hear about etc.