Arab spring leads surge in events captured on cameraphones
From Tahrir Square to the scene of John Galliano’s racist rants, pictures and videos from the public have been increasingly used in media coverage
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 29 December 2011 19.23 GMT
In 2011, cameraphones entered the mainstream of photojournalism due to a combination of the Arab uprisings, the Occupy protests and improved technology.
The Guardian, wire agencies and major broadcasters used many more cameraphone and video images. The New York Times said its use has increased a hundredfold.
“That’s largely because of the Arab spring”, said Michele McNally, assistant managing editor for photography at the New York Times. “Most of the reporters are carrying smartphones because of the image quality of the cameras. They like the style of cellphone filtered imagery and they’re less intrusive [to use] in conflict situations.”
She said citizen media was an “instant document” of an event rather than a replacement for skilled photojournalism. She said: “Most amateur footage does lack the real smart interpretation of what it’s like to be there.”
Al-Jazeera’s citizen media service Sharek received about 1,000 cameraphone videos during the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
Riyaad Minty, its head of social media, said: “Post Egypt, in places like Libya, Yemen and Syria, citizens posting online have been the primary lens through which people have been able to see what is happening on the ground.
“Now our main stories are driven by images captured by citizens on the street, it’s no longer just a supporting image. In most cases citizens capture the breaking news moments first. The Arab spring was really the tipping point when it all came together.”
Turi Munthe, founder of citizen journalism service Demotix, said there has been a cultural shift in the mainstream media.
“The main broadcasters are going out of their way to use cameraphones because the images look more authentic. In almost every image of Tahrir Square, there were people waving cameraphones.
“Globally our sales figures this year were up 250%. You need that kind of global coverage with dozens of people in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya or in New York and Portland and London. That reflects the breadth and depth of the coverage of the Arab spring and the Occupy movement.
“We had close to 1,000 contributors shipping us images from north Africa. In Egypt, there was a feeling the war was being waged on two fronts – the war against Mubarak and the campaign to get the uprising all over the media.”
Munthe said the stock photography library Corbis had started to take cameraphone images. “That’s not just for news outlets looking for an immediate record but also for magazines looking for images that stand the test of time.”
Faris Couri, editor in chief of BBC Arabic, said they have seen a fourfold increase in the use of user generated images and video. The material led investigations, for example, when a tank appeared to fire on a school early in the Egyptian revolution. Journalists found there were escaped prisoners hiding in the building.
He said: “On the rare occasion journalists got access to Syria, they were accompanied by the authorities, so the unrestricted user content balanced the coverage. During the last year it became the norm, people realised the situation demands this and it’s impossible to rely on professionals.”
Dr Rasha Abdulla, associate professor and chair of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, said a synergy had developed between citizen journalists and the mainstream media.
“An example is the horrible picture of the Egyptian female protester who was stripped on the floor by army soldiers as they brutally beat and humiliated her. While that was a Reuters picture, supporters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces claimed the picture was fake. Then an amateur video appeared leading Scaf to admit that it did indeed happen.”
On 18 December when there was a TV blackout of coverage of the occupation of the cabinet building in Cairo, Abdulla said the only footage came from a protester transmitting live online via his mobile phone.
“That signal was being watched by over 12,000 people at that time. “Gone are the days when governments will be able to hide their crimes by prohibiting TV stations and journalists from being on the scene. Everyone on the scene is a citizen journalist, and everyone is documenting while protesting.”
Philip Trippenbach, departing editor-in-chief of the social media network Citizenside, said: “There’s been a behavioural shift with activists realising their images are of interest beyond Facebook or Twitter.”
He said the introduction this year of smartphones with 8-10 megapixel cameras had led to a threefold increase in the number of images they receive
“Perhaps more important is the video capability of the latest phones. The video of John Galliano [the fashion designer’s racist rant] scoop was our story. The contributor got enough money to buy a new Audi. But for the majority it’s about sharing information like Wikipedia.”
But the Guardian’s head of photography, Roger Tooth said: “Cameraphone material is invaluable for difficult-to-get-at, breaking news stories, but is normally overtaken by photojournalists arriving at the scene.
“Higher quality cameraphones doesn’t mean better journalism – the number of megapixels is probably one of the least important things about a news picture.
“I also question how much longer the majority of people will ‘donate’ their material to commercial news organisations.”
The proliferation and growing quality of citizen media has led some mainstream broadcasters to cut professional photojournalists. CNN is laying off nearly a dozen photojournalists because of the growing use of social media, including iReport, its own citizen photojournalism service.
iReport, which has close to a million registered contributors, received about 6,300 images and videos on the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings, of which 450 were published.
Tony Maddox, executive vice president CNN International, said these contributors were not a substitute for professional newsgathering.
CNN journalists used smartphones during the Arab spring to “get right into the heart of the story”.
He said: “During the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, our operators were coming under attack and smartphones enabled us to be a lot more discreet.”
McNally, of the New York Times, said citizen media was an “instant document” of a news event rather than a replacement for skilled photojournalism. She said: “Most amateur footage does lack the real smart interpretation of what it’s like to be there.”