'Citizen journalists' move to centre stage after London bombings

Traffic surges to news websites in the hours following Thursday's bomb attack on London marginally slowed the performance of even such well-resourced operations as BBC news, but the blogosphere was churning at full strength -- and everywhere "citizen journalists" were brought into their own.

Although mainstream media has always made strong use of witness accounts, they most often filter witness accounts to fit programming requirements. But reactions to the London bombing tapped into those witnesses as if they were citizen journalists -- tipped, perhaps, by the importance of amateur videos and photographs following the Boxing Day tsunami.

Then, as during the London tragedy, mainstream media were forced to react to a major news event because they had no coverage resources on the ground, and to rely on amateurs as a first source of hard information.

To some extent, they even tapped into the blogosphere stream of commentary, extracting not the analyses and commentary on which the blogs pride themselves, but first person accounts from the London street.

But, more often, they simply opened the gates and let the accounts roll in.

BBC, for example, early began to run first person accounts -- often powerful and raw narratives -- from survivors who had been close to the devastation.

Those sorts of written accounts usually take days to filter up from personal websites and emails to the mainstream media, often finding their way through the blogosphere, but BBC -- and many other London media groups -- put forms up on their websites to draw the first person accounts which were then circulated globally through the blogoshpere.

Many even provided special email addresses to encourage video and photographic submissions from people who had been directly involved or near the four incidents.

BBC, for example, provided not only an email address (yourpics@bbc.co.uk) but a phone number (07921 648 159).

First person

Arguably, what makes the first person accounts particularly vivid for many readers is the absence of an interviewer and a script. These accounts came from victims who say what is on their minds, rather than being led through canned and sometimes trivial questions from journalists.

One survivor who had been on the Kings Cross train wrote:

I thought I was about to die, or was dead.

Then I realised I was choking, the smoke was like being underwater.

But gradually I could see, a little, as the emergency lights in the tunnel kicked in.

The glass was smashed so air started to flood in, we were OK.

There was silence for 10 seconds. Then a terrible screaming.

Few interviewers would have allowed a witness to make such a comprehensive statement without interruption.

While BBC didn't say how it had collected those statements, many are likely to have been obtained through a special form the broadcaster placed on its website asking readers to contribute personal accounts.

Overwhelmingly, the responses to that request drew instead sympathetic messages from well-wishers who were not involved and those were culled off into separate pages, where they are also available for public viewing.

The Guardian, which is perhaps the most blog-savvy mainstream publication in the world, quickly established an email address for the use of its readers and culled the eyewitness accounts into pages of riveting reading. The Guardian has long made extensive use of interactive tools and its expertise showed -- not only in the collection of public comments but through the contributions on many of its in-house blogs.

One important value of blogging is that it can extend the reach of a story -- or, in the case of the London bombings, personal accounts -- far beyond its normal, limited circle of natural readers or listeners.

The personal account published by the Guardian from Sergeant Steve Betts of the British Transport police, who was one of the first rescuers to reach the Piccadilly line train between King's Cross and Russell Square on Thursday is a powerful example. Linked to countless times in the blogosphere since it was published, that account included some of the most chilling lines of all, including this:

I thought, this is the worst thing I have ever seen. I am not very good in enclosed spaces at the best of times and we had to climb over bodies and body parts to try to help people and see who was still alive. I thought this is the end of the world, right here in this carriage, but you have to do your job.

Bloggers and …

The private blogging community went well beyond its normal performance, as well, by rounding up links to bloggers with direct knowledge -- such as Charmaine Yoest's chilling entry about reaction in the London Muslim street -- and circulating key quotes from them, as well as from the mainstream media.

Aggregation websites like Technorati went to the top of their technological game in the hours following the bombings (and since) by using tools -- "tags" in Technorati's case -- to sort through millions of blogs for those that were dealing with London.

Yahoo! also tried to perform a similar function, announcing its first "News blog", which it said would "highlight accounts of the London bombings, including blogs, photos, and videos, from those who witnessed or were affected by the explosions and their aftermath." Perhaps because it was an untested and unfamiliar effort, the special blog drew almost no reaction from readers -- but by taking that first, tentative step out into the citizen journalism webspace, the immensely popular portal has signaled an intention to be an important player during future events of global significance.

Harvard University's bridge-blogging effort, Global Voices Online offered posts from the Arab-speaking world, often translated on the fly by 'bridge bloggers.'

Community blogging portals also rose to the occasion, exemplified by Metroblogs, which provides a series of city-specific blog portals for users. Its London Metroblog quickly became a rallying point for the sharing of news and accounts from the scene -- as well as a flood of speculation about why the attack took place and who might be behind it.

But the mainstream media also contributed in this regard, by publishing links to key blogs and even interviewing bloggers like Londoner Adam Tinworth in ways that shot their readership -- and impact -- well up. Perhaps not surprisingly, given its renascent attention to technological issues and news, the Wall Street Journal excelled in this undertaking.

One of the most technically interesting aspects of the reporting on the attack came from two widely different sources, BBC and WikiNews.

The BBC ran a reporters' blog that captured preliminary impressions from its professional reporting staff. Those impressions on the fly helped readers understand the developing editorial policy at the news giant.

On the other side of the divide, the least hierarchical news group in the world, the nascent WikiNews effort, ran an on-going story about the attack and put into public view how it was being constructed as it went through hundreds of 'citizen journalist' revisions over a period of days.

… Mobloggers

On another front, the relatively new phenomenon of moblogging -- mobile (phone) blogging, in which posters send pictures to the internet directly from cameras and mobile phone -- provided images to a news-hungry world much faster than could the mainstream media.

Many of these citizen journalists began by posting, not surprisingly, pictures from television screens tuned to network stations. That gave readers without access to key channels like BBC, Sky and CNN access to the deepening visual coverage from the mainstream media.

But some began posting privately and to mainstream sources as the event was unfolding. Moblogger 'Alfie' published a phone cam picture of one underground evacuation almost as it was taking place. His moblog community -- Moblog.co.uk -- was almost universally unaware of the event depicted in the image. The picture has since been viewed over 76,000 times.

Another victim sent BBC a phone cam video of his tube evacuation that has since been played on all major international television networks -- and is still available online from some major networks (under a variety of conditions).

But while moblogging portals like Flickr captured many images and much interest -- even to the point of aggregating all photos that might have to do with the attack, again, it was the mainstream media that made the best use of amateur footage -- often seeing it spun out and audiences for it developed through blog channels.

Not only BBC, but CNN and Sky featured amateur video and photographs throughout the early hours of the attack -- and some of those pictures have found their way into such estimable repositories as that run by Getty.

As with the Boxing Day tsunami, these contributions framed for many the most powerful visual context of the story.

Citizen journalists

The term 'citizen journalist' is not new, but has never had anything like the legitimacy conferred upon it by London.

The Los Angeles Times noted, peculiarly, on 8 July that mainstream media had not been able to get cameras and reporters quickly to the scenes of the blasts because of "tight security." The real truth was that no news agency will ever be able to match the speed of victims with cameras that connect to the internet.

Still, it quoted Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage for ABC (America), as having admitted: "You forget how many people have these phones now and how much more of the first minutes of an event you're going to see."

ITV, it said, received dozens of video clips, some by e-mail and others from survivors of the blasts who brought their phones directly to the London newsroom. Some of the video clips were too gruesome too air, according to one senior editor.

Many of them are likely to arrive at some point on the internet -- unvarnished and unedited.

MSNBC correspondent and blogger Glenn Reynolds wrote early about the 'millions of eyes and ears' citizen journalists represent, and developed the theme in a post-London story in which he said: "I hope that disaster planners are thinking about how to make use of this capability in the event of future attacks."

But it was the man most associated with the phrase 'citizen journalists' -- blogger and 'former' journalist Dan Gillmore who perhaps said it best.

In a post titled Where I Turned for News of London Attacks, Mr Gillmore wrote:

… The accumulation of data, and then of context, becomes the story we need to read. It's not just one story, and it never was for people who wanted more than superficial coverage.

We need the citizen journalists' coverage, and need better ways to get at it. But early this morning, for the context I craved I turned to the professionals first -- online, of course…

And when he turned to the professionals, he found screens full of reports by … citizen journalists.

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