By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Citizen journalism and Virginia Tech

If the tragedy at Virginia Tech has produced a media star, it is surely Jamal Albarghouti, the graduate student who captured some as-it-happened video of the gunfire on his cell-phone camera. The video was posted on CNN.com and shown repeatedly on the cable channel. Albarghouti himself has been the subject of frequent interviews.

But is Albarghouti’s bravery and striking footage an example of citizen journalism at its best? Interestingly enough, NewAssignment.Net, a virtual watering hole for the citizen-journalism movement, has given voice to some skepticism. Steve Fox writes:

Consider this: the video had no inherent news value and told no story.

It did have sounds of bullets being fired and screams.

Those were bullets that killed, maimed and injured students and faculty members. This wasn’t a video game.

Is such video responsible journalism? Are these the types of Citizen Journalists that people want to see? Are we doomed to create “citizen journalists” to play the I-patsies for cable television?

Adds John McQuaid: “What is the value of something ‘live’ if you don’t know what you’re looking at? Cable execs will disagree, but ‘live and on-scene’ is not an end in itself.”

At the Citizen Media Center blog, Dan Gillmor takes a more sanguine view of how amateur and professional journalism has come together to cover the Virginia Tech story. And at Poynter.org, Al Tompkins has an extensive roundup of how students — including some hiding under desks — got out information about shootings via text messages, blogs and online forums. “If you ever had a doubt about how important it is for your newsroom to be able to tap into user-generated content, the Virginia Tech story will change that,” Tompkins writes.

What’s at a premium in confusing breaking-news stories such as this is perspective and understanding. As Fox and McQuaid suggest, the problem with the Albarghouti video isn’t that it was produced by a citizen journalist, but that it provided no context, and only added to the confusion. It was dramatic, so CNN showed it. But news has to be about more than that.

On Monday evening, I was flipping through the cable news channels, and quickly wound up watching a documentary on U.S. soldiers in Iraq instead. Why? Well, the news value of what the cable nets were reporting could be summed up in a minute or two. The rest was filler, some of it harmless, some of it not.

CNN was showing an interview with Albarghouti — and Larry King was threatening to put Dr. Phil on. I took the threat seriously and left. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly had right-wing pundette Michelle Malkin; her presence struck me as so weirdly inappropriate that I confess I didn’t stick around long enough to hear what she had to say. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann was actually asking someone from washingtonpost.com what effect the shootings might have on the presidential campaign. Answer: Who knows?

I also heard it “reported” that it appeared the shooter was Chinese and not a student. Of course, as we soon learned, he was Korean and was indeed a student. What on earth is the value of these unverified tidbits, shoveled out there as fast as they come in and just as likely to be wrong as right? The Politico‘s Ben Smith must wonder why he got singled out for wrongly reporting that John Edwards would suspend his presidential campaign. Smith’s screw-up, after all, was hardly unique.

I don’t entirely agree with Fox and McQuaid. Surely Albarghouti’s video has some news value. But it wasn’t the story — it was part of a much bigger story. If the video lacks perspective — and it does — then it’s the media’s fault for showing it without providing that perspective.


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17 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Dan,I agree with you completely on this. This incident is not the first time I have experienced the feeling that there was NOTHING of value in the televised coverage of a breaking news event, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The competition to get something, anything, on the air that your competition does not have has become the primary driver behind the decision making process in the newsroom. Couple that with the need to come up with video to fill some time in the 24 hour a day news hole, and you get some really bad decision making. When I first saw Jamal’s footage, I wondered what the hell I was seeing, and why there was no VO telling me what I was seeing, or why I was seeing it. I never did get an answer to those questions.I don’t recall if it was NBC or CBS that at about 8:30 Monday night teased a ten o’clock one-hour special, saying they would have “new, breaking information for you”. I didn’t know newscasters had developed the ability to see into the future! That must be very helpful.

  2. Anonymous

    There’s no inherent value in staring at a car wreck you pass on the highway, either– but it’s human nature to do it. There was no inherent value in watching the World Trade Center towers burn and collapse, but we all watched that too. More than 90 percent of the information that reaches our brains comes through our eyes, and we all have an instinctive fascination with dramatic events. We can’t help but watch. Honestly, I’m more surprised people are discussing whether this video has an inherent value. Of course it doesn’t, but who cares? Of course we want to watch.

  3. man who's a newsman

    I remember when JFK Jr’s plane went down back in July of 1999. It was a Friday night and I was on a news shift the following Saturday and it was wall-to-wall coverage of absolutely nothing for eight hours. Saturdays typically are pretty slow and I vaguely remember that it was really slow that week. Basically our reporting was: the plane crashed, the occupants are missing and presumed dead. That was IT. I mean you could cover everything we knew (and were going to know) in about two minutes of reporting…which left 58 minutes to fill. UGH!That’s mostly what Monday felt like. Wall to wall coverage of very little information. Yeesh. At least here in Boston we had the marathon and the Nor’easter to distract us.And speaking of which, there’s a part of me that thinks Albarghouti was a flaming idiot for trying to shoot footage on a cameraphone while gunshots are ringing out. You notice how he was taping the police rather than trying to aim the cameraphone at where the shots were coming from? I suspect he was (consciously or unconsciously) trying to capture a Rodney King moment and post it on Youtube.

  4. Anonymous

    If it’s OK to partially cross-post a bit, I want to underscore that the Roanoke Times did an amazing job and showed how a local print publication can and should survive in the digital age.Far and way the best, most up-to-date and detailed coverage was from the Roanoke Times web site, which switched to a time-stamped blog format and for several days beat the wires, CNN and TV with solid reporting.That undoubtedly drew a national audience while still serving the local community very well. And it shows that even in the Internet age, good reporting begins with local source relationships.-dan h

  5. A.J. Cordi

    The only value in the video by Jamal Albarghouti was the sense that we saw what others were doing at the time of the shootings – plain and simple. There was no actual “news” value to the video. It was more public interest.

  6. Tony

    I would agree with the need for a voice-over or an ID to tell the viewer what they were seeing, but I think the footage has HUGE news value. I mean, how often do we get to see – or in this case, hear – the actual crime being committed? Almost never. News, like crime-fighting, isn’t just about mopping up the stuff. If you can get it during the event, all the more reason to run with it, I think.

  7. Anonymous

    Dan,Did you really think Olby would bring more to the table than Malkin? Personally, I learn more from people with whom I disagree. Ad hominems are what they are, regardless of the source.

  8. Local Editor

    By the way, did you notice the front page photos in today’s NY Times and Boston Globe?Great minds think alike?

  9. Don

    A citizen journalist is sorta like an amateur doctor.

  10. Zach Everson

    As the Economist pointed out 172 people died in Iraq today (http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2007/04/a_break_from_your_regularly_sc.cfm), yet it barely gets mentioned in America.

  11. Anonymous

    Zach,what happens in America is a big deal everywhere. What happens elsewhere is a big deal somewhere.

  12. A.J. Cordi

    To Don: “Hi, Dr. Nick!” LOL.I believe that ‘Citizen Journalism’ can be very resourceful. However, in the VT case, it was not. It was only public interest.

  13. O-FISH-L

    While I’m no journalist, I have to agree w/ Tony 3:32, that the Jamal Albarghouti audio and video recording has HUGE news value. As a retired police detective, I also think it has a place in the ongoing investigation and would have had significant value to a prosecution, if the suspect hadn’t killed himself. The Albarghouti tape may still play a role in the final determination of whether or not Cho Seung-Hui acted alone.Lest we forget that the Select Committee on Assassinations, investigating the JFK case, relied heavily on acoustical evidence, largely supplied by the radio on a police motorcycle that had the transmit button accidentally stuck in the “on” position. Of course the Zapruder film was “video only” as home movie cameras didn’t have audio capability back then. In the VA Tech case, thanks to Albarghouti, we not only have audio but video on the same tape. While this is no Zapruder film, it’s at least as valuable as the much studied Dallas police motorcycle “open mic”. For what it’s worth, I find the “amateur” Albarghouti tape far more valuable than the “professional” network talking heads on risers outside the crime scene many hours after the incident, or Paula Zahn attempting to bait traumatized students into blaming the college President and Police Chief for malfeasance. I sense that the media “pros” here feel very threatened by succesful amateurs like Albarghouti. To quote perhaps the most famous “star” of an amateur tape, “Can’t we all get along?”

  14. The Scoop

    Dan, your next post had better come down hard on NBC for airing the Virginia Tech shooter’s “video manifesto.” After you spent the last week criticizing Don Imus for his comments (and his “old,” “offensive” act that has “repeatedly crossed the line”), it would be extremely hypocritical to not criticize NBC for something that is far more offensive to far greater numbers of people.People on the Virginia Tech campus were getting physically ill watching the video. Despite what the Rutgers basketball team said about being “scarred for life,” nobody was affected that deeply by Imus’ comments.You also recently came down on CNN’s airing of the cell phone video — footage of a major news event as it happened. If you say that has no news value, clearly the manifesto has none, and you have to point that out.

  15. Dan Kennedy

    Scoop: I just posted. But I suggest you go back and reread my post on CNN and the cell-phone video. You don’t seem to have understood what I wrote. There’s also a hell of a difference between news and what some old gasbag blurts out in front of the microphone, don’t you think?

  16. The Scoop

    I completely agree that there’s a monumental difference between Imus’ comments and the Virginia Tech shootings. The shootings show how overblown the whole Imus thing was in the first place.My last post was more of an attack on those who railed against Imus than it was a statement on NBC’s decision to air the “video manifesto,” trying to put everything in perspective.I believe that NBC has the right to air the video, but that doesn’t mean they should have. It is especially hypocritical in the case of NBC. Just last week they took Imus off their cable station for two words that were blown completely out of porportion. Now they are making a complete ratings grab at the expense of the suffering Virginia Tech community, and they are making the shooter a hero to loners everywhere.

  17. Lisa Williams

    If the Albarghouti video isn’t news, then a lot of Iraq video isn’t either, no? Or the captured footage of planes striking the WTC towers?

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