Tornadoes met by avid citizen journalists

Citizen journalists commandeered the front of today's Globe and Mail
Citizen journalists commandeered the front of today's Globe and Mail

Like CITY-TV, they’re everywhere. The grainy photographs of dozens of “citizen journalists,” such as those that appeared on last night’s Toronto-area newscasts and websites, as well as today’s morning newspapers, are often touted as the harbingers of a new form of journalism that will eventually displace the less agile mechanisms of legacy media.

Perhaps. One need only look at the front page of today’s Globe and Mail to recognize the impact that hundreds of thousands of cellphone-toting Canadian consumers are having on the daily record of local events, especially weather. Aggregated into a whole, they’re doing what traditional media could only have hoped to do as recently as a decade ago.

The difference is the proliferation of relatively inexpensive cameras, either tucked into cellphones or standalone units. They’re cheap, they’re within easy reach and they’re everywhere. (The latest iPhone 3GS, for example, can shoot stills or video, though at only three megapixels.) Combine that with Canadians’ enduring fascination with extreme weather and the result is the kind of pervasive storm coverage Ontarians have witnessed in the past 24 hours.

The increasing reliance of Canadians on citizen journalists, however, also brings risks, the most serious of which is digital manipulation of sound, video and still images. Photo enhancement and editing software now makes altering photographs as simple as, say, moving the image of a photo-crashing squirrel into an existing shot. Which, I suppose, raises the question: Were any of the photos among the plethora of images that swamped media outlets last night fakes instead of the real thing?

The most memorable case in recent Canadian journalism history of a hoax of this nature is, arguably, the 1985 case of the Toronto Star and a front-page photo of a tornado that its editors believed had swept through central Ontario. Given that good photographs of tornadoes were still relatively rare, the Star paid a teen hundreds of dollars for the photo. Only later was it revealed that the teen had photographed an image of a U.S. tornado from a back issue of the Barrie Examiner. Red faces abounded in the Star’s newsroom.

The proliferation of tools for journalism among tech-savvy citizens has enormous potential for democratizing and popularizing information flow. But it also comes with risks. And in an age of pixel-by-pixel manipulation of video and still images, to say nothing of audio and text, spotting the pretenders will be much more difficult than it would have been for the The Star to spot the phony handed it. Sadly, even some “professional” journalists have given in to the temptation to manipulate and fabricate information, in text and in images. With the rise of citizen journalism, news consumers will have to be even more cautious and aware of the growing risks.

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