The rash of dramatic events across the world, from the Christchurch earthquake to the Arab Spring to Japan’s current problems, have led to widespread debate about the role of the civilian journalist and many of the iconic images from the struggles have come from mobile phones or handheld cameras.
But after reading Emily’s post, I came across this blog on MediaPost, and it got me thinking. The author’s argument is that civilian journalism and crowdsourcing doesn’t work when it comes to vast natural events like the Japanese earthquake and tidal wave – the sheer size of the event means that the necessarily small-scale images captured by members of the public can’t convey the full impact. Instead, he argues that this is where conventional news, with all the resources of multiple cameras, aerial filming and rapid deployment, come into their own. Conventional news gives a sense of perspective that UGC just can’t provide.
But is he right? This prompted a heated debate on the issue from commenters – some of them with some very interesting perspectives. One actually said that the advantage of professional news is its neatness and the sheer convenience of its packaging – instead of ‘trawl[ing] through heaps of UGC’ you can get all of the facts, and the most pertinent images, in one place – simple and quick. Others argued that the inherent strength of UGC is its ability to get the unexpected shot by being on the spot by sheer fluke at the right moment.
There are elements of truth to both of these arguments, but I fundamentally disagree with the original thesis. I think that some of the images coming out of Japan captured by normal people as the battle their way through a horrible event are utterly mind-blowing – see the footage below, taken by a man as his car was overtaken by the tidal wave. The essence of UGC is not the ‘being on the spot’ – it’s the fact that it reminds the viewer that these terrible things are happening to real people. This is a crisis experienced on a deeply personal level, a level which its difficult to appreciate as you watch helicopter shots of tiny houses, tiny cars, tiny people on rooftops. That makes you feel further from the real horror of the situation, turns you into something along the lines of a cinema-goer – with the news teams focusing on ‘spectacle’, its easier to overlook the human cost.
And then the other day I found this post, also on MediaPost, which explains in very simple and affecting terms just how UGC can be more than ‘entertainment’. It can actually help people – help them find family and friends, help them understand what has happened in a more immediate sense. Is it safe on my street? Which areas are affected?
Obviously, there’s a place for perspective. Explosions at the Fukishima nuclear power plant need to be captured on a grand scale. But UGC isn’t professional and it isn’t concerned with looking good. It’s the reactions of real people to shocking circumstances and that’s what makes it so powerful.