Alexander Chadwick's photo of Kings Cross after the 7/7 bombings.
In the face of danger, human nature may dictate a fight-or-flight response, but mobile technology has created a new reflex: point and shoot. This week marks the 5-year-anniversary of the 7/7 bombings that shook London’s mass transit system, a tragedy that, in addition to its cultural and geopolitical consequences, helped formulate a new understanding of what it means for the world to witness the immediate aftermath of catastrophe. Cell phone photos taken by survivors—average citizens—have had consequences that few could have predicted: July 7, 2005, was one of the pivotal moments in the development of citizen journalism as a legitimate, continually evolving part of the modern media landscape.
For a quick academic primer on the role of the 7/7 attacks in shaping citizen journalism, I turned to Jeff Borenstein’s 2009 paper, “Camera Phone Images: How The London Bombings in 2005 Shaped the Form of News
.” Borenstein documents the influence of cell phone photos on the existing news system, citing a powerful photo
sent to the BBC by Alexander Chadwick as an example of citizen journalism’s now-fulfilled potential. Borenstein concluded, “It was recorded by a tiny piece of technology in the depths of a bombed out subway car and transmitted to news editors instantaneously with high-speed wireless technology. An incredible feat that has by now been routinized and refined by better equipment and an evolving news industry. In our quest to connect and make sense of the world, the camera phone matters more than ever and will continue to drive, but not determine, the news.”
Outside academia, just why should we care about the camera phone and its ability to connect? Because citizen journalism—seen in cell phone photos, Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and other media—is just one part of the driving force behind the transformation of the modern media landscape into a more inclusive, participatory space. No longer does the public passively consume news created by established mainstream media; for the last few years legacy media outlets have raced to find new ways to let their audience participate in creating the news, whether by submitting content, as in CNN's iReports
, or by inviting readers to blog, as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has done
in its second life as an online-only publication.
Public contributions to the news are not an entirely new phenomenon; the earliest American newspapers were largely assembled from announcements sent to publishers by members of the community. But in the digital age, the “citizen journalist” first reemerged as the bystander whose cell phone photos gave the public first-hand footage of events of national and international importance. The ease of access and reliability of this kind of citizen journalism have encouraged the gradual erosion of traditional news outlets’ monopoly on information, and from those photos and other spontaneous public contributions of breaking news, a different type of citizen journalism evolved: original newsgathering independent of traditional news outlets, from Sierrabear
in Sonora and Tuolumne County, California, to the District of Columbia’s blog Prince of Petworth
Nowadays, it seems that Citizen Journalism 2.0 often consists of nitty gritty, hyperlocal coverage that major news outlets can’t afford—they just don’t have enough reporters to assign someone to cover every zoning board meeting. Instead, major papers like The Washington Post
(in its “Daily Gripe
” feature) call upon the public to report back on issues in the community using tools such as SeeClickFix
, and citizen news outlets take care of the rest.
In fact, citizen journalism now supplements or serves as a replacement news source all over the world. The Journalism Mentor Center in Mumbai is offering citizen journalism training
classes for 10 weeks this summer. The motto of OhmyNews
, a South Korean online newspaper, is that “every citizen is a reporter.” The citizen journalism route can be a viable alternative when a city, state or country’s mainstream media lack the resources to report on certain issues. And if those issues are sensitive, especially in closed societies, citizen journalism might be the only way to bring information into the public sphere. In a recent Newsweek
article, Julia Baird joins many others in pointing to the proliferation of citizen journalism in Iran during the June 2009 election protests.
Perhaps this is the one good thing to come out of the London bombings five years ago: Cell phone and Twitter users everywhere taking charge of their own news, making sure that all important issues—from national disasters to zoning board meetings to information suppressed in a totalitarian state—get the coverage they deserve.