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Windows To The World

  • Martin Secrest

Windows To The World

Windows To The World

By some estimates there are now more mobile phones in the world than there are people. And more and more, each one of those phones has a camera. Mobile devices like camera-phones have made it easy to shoot video and share it on the Internet. But what's the value of all that video, and can we trust what we're seeing? VOA's Martin Secrest reports.

The media landscape is changing rapidly. In the United States alone there are some 12 million people writing blogs - and surveys indicate that more than half of these bloggers consider themselves "journalists."

Digital video cameras have gotten cheaper and smaller; as a result use of these devices is exploding. And even mainstream news outlets are beginning to give make use of reports from citizens with camera phones - so-called "citizen journalists."

"When the earthquakes hit in Haiti, we had reports coming in on Global Voices ten minutes after the first quake," says Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of the self-described "citizen network" Global Voices Online. "It's not always about breaking news. Most people aren't aware that Fiji has recently gone through a coup, it's under a dictatorial government. But there are bloggers in Fiji who are letting people know what they think, they're reporting on what's going on politically."

For breaking news from remote or dangerous places, the first online reports may come from citizens posting video or photographs to the Internet, as happened during the London transportation bombings of 2005. As these reports have become more common, websites have sprung up to host them - sites such as Seoul-based OhmyNews - their motto "Every citizen a reporter" - and California-based AllVoices, which now boasts 5 million unique visitors per month.

Another citizen news site is groundreport.com, which claims to be among the first to carry reports from vetted journalists about the terror attacks on Mumbia in 2008.

"Over the course of events, we consistently broke news," says groundreport.com CEO Rachel Sterne. She cites the posting of "...updates of the seige on the hotels and the various other centers in Mumbai that were under attack, hours before the mainstream media, and sometimes half a day before the mainstream Western media."

How do these news websites determine the accuracy of of reports they present? It depends on the website - some may have little or no formal vetting process. Groundreport.com's Rachel Sterne says, "After a journalist, a contributor or one of our partner institutions has established that they have an independent vetting process, they may be added to a 'white list' that allows them to publish freely. If they're not on that white list, the first time that you come to groundreport, if we've never seen you before, your work is not published live."

Mobile technology isn't just changing how news gets reported; it's also transforming the way people access and consume it. And that, says Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, isn't necesarily a good thing. "There's more information on the web, but there is not the same kind of place where we all go together to get common information. And that hurts us in terms of the cohesiveness of the society."

The video sharing website YouTube estimates around 24 hours of video is uploaded to its servers every minute of every day. All that video means it's easy for users to become lost in a tangle of information and pictures, often from unknown sources, with no roadmap how to digest it.

Furthermore, recent research indicates that even the most established websites dedicated to citizen reporters are in no position to take on the job of traditional news providers. A Pew Research Center publication indicates that the vast majority of the top news websites still are tied to legacy media, and that most of the online news audience continues to go to those sites.

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