People who stream live video from their mobile phones can be a compelling example of citizen journalism. But it is not always clear if and when a live streamer can actually be called a citizen journalist. Just because someone pulls out their phone and starts streaming, does that make them a citizen journalist? It depends on what they are streaming.
One way we might identify acts of citizen journalism is by asking the following question: is the person recording something in the public interest, with the goal of sharing it with an audience now or in the future? This is not meant to be an exhaustive definition, but it does seem to be a useful rule of thumb for articulating what activities might count as citizen journalism. For example, if you are at home and decide to live stream your cat, this almost certainly is not in the public interest. But if you are at a demonstration I would argue that you are indeed a citizen journalist because what you are streaming is very likely in the public interest, and streaming it demonstrates the intent to share it with an audience.
As an act of citizen journalism, live streaming has been especially compelling when used to document recent events in the US, including the community reaction in Ferguson after the grand jury decision was announced, and the widespread protests in New York after the death of Eric Garner. It is a unique medium because it is highly authentic, raw, uncut, and unprocessed. It allows the viewer to see events happen in real time through the eyes of a participant. In some ways it occupies the highest sense of technological immediacy which has resulted from faster internet speeds, pervasive data connection, and the increasingly sophisticated technology crammed into smart phones. It is as close as you can get to being there without actually being there.
And apparently I’m not the only person who finds them compelling. Based on media reports and my own informal tally of view counts, within 12 hours of the grand jury announcement live streamers using UStream and LiveStream in Ferguson racked up 4.8 million views. New York Magazine detailed some of this activity, and some of the streamers, in an article entitled “Is Livestreaming the Future of Media, or the Future of Activism?” (Chen 2014).
Live streaming is also a textbook example of what Elihu Katz called disintermediation. It cuts out the middleman that is mainstream media coverage. The big news outlet coverage of Ferguson has been criticized for its lack of understanding of the community and their portrayal of events, not least by streamers and community members themselves. As Chen noted in the New York Magazine article, “The live-streamers’ other main adversary is the mainstream media. Many protesters in Ferguson can expound for hours about the problems with the media, from its obsession with ‘riot porn’ to its credulousness of the police perspective.”
In my personal experience, watching live video of Ferguson from a news helicopter circling overhead was almost completely uninformative. It told me nothing about what was really happening, and felt weirdly removed from the very real and important events that were unfolding on the ground. But watching people gathered in anticipation of bad news and listening to the announcement through the windows of a car, watching the community start to process what the decision meant, and watching people interact with police and each other through live streaming video was extremely informative and emotionally moving. Elise Thorburn touches on the difference is this perspective in her analysis of live streamers from the Montreal student demonstrations: “For those unable to attend the demos, for those at far remove from Montreal, or for those impeded by mobility issues or familial responsibilities, the live stream gave viewers insight into the motivations, ideas, analysis, and politics of the strikers and demonstrators; and these went far beyond the mainstream media’s reliance on government platitudes and shocking images of rioters smashing windows or running from tear-gas-happy police” (Thorburn 2014, 56).
It also seems that streaming video (as well as recorded video) is increasingly thought of as a way to combat the growing power inequality between the state and citizens. There is a line of thinking that police are less likely to harm citizens, especially through the use of illegal force, if they are being recorded. Emily Bell notes that Ramsey Orta, who recorded the illegal chokehold used on Eric Garner, “said he always pulls his phone out if he thinks the police might arrest him, as protection” (Bell 2015). Michael Naimark asks “if a live webcaster knows the number of viewers in real time, could another Rodney King style beating be averted (‘14,556 people are watching you right now!’)?”
It is a very interesting question (for another blog post) as to whether the presence of video recording actually acts as a deterrent to police violence, or is an effective method of accountability when police violence occurs. This idea seems to be part of the Obama administration’s advocating for the use of body cameras on police. Here is one argument that camera footage as evidence doesn’t change the existing pro-police bias. Here is an argument that cameras can reduce abusive police behavior.
As compelling as live streaming video might be, one of the major challenges we face in this rapidly evolving landscape of citizen journalism is finding ways to help and protect live streamers. They are serving a vital function, often streaming from places where the mainstream media is unwilling or unable to go, but they lack all of the benefits that come from being a journalist with an institutional affiliation. As Bell notes, that includes pay, training, union membership, and the added protections that are afforded to the press. How can we properly thank or reward live streamers, and how can we make their cameras more effectively act as shields against state violence?
Bell, Emily. 2015. “Emily Bell’s 2015 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture – Full Text.” The Guardian. Accessed February 14. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/28/emily-bells-2015-hugh-cudlipp-lecture-full-text
Chen, Adrian. 2014. “Is Livestreaming the Future of Media or the Future of Activism?” Daily Intelligencer. Accessed December 15. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2014/12/livestreaming-the-future-of-media-or-activism.html.
Katz, Elihu. 1988. “Disintermediation: Cutting out the Middle Man.” Intermedia 16 (2): 30.
Naimark, Michael. “All Live Global Video.” http://www.naimark.net/projects/bigprojects/livevideo.html.
Thorburn, Elise Danielle. 2014. “Social Media, Subjectivity, and Surveillance: Moving on From Occupy, the Rise of Live Streaming Video.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 11 (1): 52–63. doi:10.1080/14791420.2013.827356.