My journalist friends, who by and large are middle-aged coots like me, get upset whenever I say something like “everybody is a journalist now.”
To which I would respond with two vignettes from this week.
In the first, some of the sharpest foreign correspondents in the world huddled on an upper floor of the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, covering Libya’s civil war by pointing their cell phone cameras at themselves, talking about how they were prisoners of the pro-Gadhafi guards who patrolled and surrounded the hotel, while waiting for someone to take them somewhere or tell them something.
In the second, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake centered in Virginia rattled most of the East Coast, triggering evacuations of offices and government buildings and doing some damage. Other people in my Scarsdale, N.Y., office felt the building shake. My age-dulled senses overlooked the tremor, but a call from my wife told me something was up.
I quickly pointed my browser at CNN.com (my favorite news source, especially while my daughter interns there this summer) to find the briefest of bulletins. My considerably younger colleague Ben Sullivan did his research on Twitter, which rapidly filled with tweets from all over the East Coast.
John Coffey (JCoffey01) was one of the first citizen-journalists to report what was happening in Virginia without using any words that I would hesitate to repeat here. “EARTHQUAKE IN MANASSAS VIRGINIA!” was his bulletin. I could not have done it better back when I manned a news desk for The Associated Press, covering things like the ash fallout from the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
I do not wish to demean those reporters holed up in the Rixos Hotel. They took all kinds of chances just to be in Tripoli. They did not have the option to be out on the streets, and in any event, someone needed to report that war from the government side. Other correspondents, in equal if not greater peril, traveled with the Libyan rebels. Four New York Times journalists were brutalized, and their Libyan driver executed, when they were captured by pro-Gadhafi forces early in the war. They are among many who have risked and, too often, sacrificed themselves to tell the world something important.
But the partnership between the press and the public has become so close that I find the distinction meaningless. When I wanted to know what was happening, I went to a traditional source like CNN because that is where my generation’s experience took me. When Ben wanted to know what was happening, he went to Twitter for the same reason.
Syria, like Iran before it, has basically prohibited foreign journalists from covering popular rebellion. The domestic press presents only what the government wants it to present, so the only way to find out what is really happening is to rely on the videos, tweets, blog posts and accounts provided by ordinary citizens, who – just like “real” journalists – often risk their own lives to get the story out. I don’t see a meaningful difference. In fact, most news organizations these days immediately turn to Twitter and other social network sites to gather information when something unexpected happens. Instead of the press informing the public, we have the public informing the press.
Just like the best journalists, who carry press passes, some civilians have a knack for summing up the story in a few pithy words or even a few letters.
“SRSLY?” was the tweet from Cindy Li (cindyli), who immediately knew exactly what was happening. “I had to come to Virginia to feel an earthquake in Reston when I live in SF?”
She may not consider herself a journalist, but as far as I am concerned, that’s journalism.