From The Published Archives: “Can we trust citizen journalists?”

Between April 2007 and January 2008, I contributed more than 100 pieces to Fading To Black, a blog devoted to covering “the downward spiral of the newspaper industry in the 21st century”.  Since this website made the transition from Windows Live Spaces to WordPress recently, certain content had to be left behind which included the complete lists of every FTB piece I ever posted.  Rather than bring back the lists, I’ve come up with a different approach.

Considering how long it’s been, I thought it would be interesting to revive some past offerings from my published archives which brings me to this item that was first seen on Fading To Black on November 17, 2007.  Pierre Burton’s son, Paul, was the editor-in-chief of The London Free Press at the time and would contribute weekly columns about the media.  That same day, he posted a commentary with the headline, “Can we trust citizen journalists?”, which I used in quotation marks for my own FTB commentary on his work.

In his column, he talks about the shocking Canadian scandal involving Robert Dziekanski, a young Polish construction worker and miner who was relocating to The Great White North to live with his mom in Kamloops.  Ultimately left befuddled, aggravated and scared after being stranded for 10 hours at the Vancouver International Airport on October 14th that year (his flight actually arrived two hours behind schedule on the 13th in the afternoon), Dziekanski, who spoke no English, eventually isolated himself in a secure area of the airport and start throwing things in a fit of rage.  Four overzealous RCMP officers, a mere 25 seconds after confronting him, used their tasers five times to try to calm him down.  The move worked too well.  He died.  He was only 40.  (Wikipedia has the whole story here.)

No one would’ve ever known about it were it not for Paul Pritchard and Sima Ashrafinia.   While the latter used her cellphone, the former secretly taped the 10-minute incident with a digital video camera and the footage (contained on a memory card) ended up initially in the custody of the police.  (For some inexplicable reason, they were not interested in Ashrafinia who actually tried to comfort Dziekanski.)  When they refused to return it to him (after initially promising they would after holding it for 48 hours), fearing a possible cover-up Pritchard hired a lawyer, was reunited with his footage and promptly sold it to the three major networks in Canada (CBC, Global and CTV) for an unspecified sum.  (CBC reported that it was “several thousand dollars” without giving an actual number.)  The revealing footage contradicted the RCMP’s official views of the matter.

The result was a firestorm of fierce criticism entirely directed at the RCMP as well as the Vancouver International Airport.  Several investigations were launched.  Although the officers responsible for Dziekanski’s death have never been prosecuted, the RCMP did apologize to his mother this past April Fool’s Day in a press conference.  Zofia Cisowski graciously accepted.  She also accepted an undisclosed financial settlement and later dropped her lawsuits against the law enforcement institution and the airport.  In June, Special Prosecutor Richard Peck announced that he uncovered new evidence about the case and advocated for its reopening.  Interestingly, according to (the final paragraph of the above link), three of the officers have since been relocated and have been demoted to “administrative duties” while the one that remains is in trouble for another incident, this one involving a vehicular fatality.  He’s already been suspended with pay.

Back to Berton’s column.  I was disappointed he didn’t firmly answer his own headline, a question that remains deeply relevant today considering the ongoing, unethical antics of Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe.  So I answered it for him. 

Although you can still read this piece on FTB, I’ve decided to re-post it here with one major change.  In the original posting, you’ll see the words “full column” at the very end.  In 2007, clicking that part of the piece would take you to Berton’s original column which I quoted four paragraphs from.  Today, however, it’s a dead link.  However, when you click “full column” in my re-posting here, you’ll be transported to a different address which features the exact same column.  Enjoy.

“Can we trust citizen journalists?”

Paul Berton of The London Free Press has written a column about the potential usefulness of citizen journalists during a particularly dark period for professional reporters and newspapers. While noting the recent release of a video showing the fatal tasering of a Polish immigrant at a Vancouver airport last month by RCMP officers, he simply and persuasively explains that because of the seemingly endless rounds of layoffs, buyouts and corporate media downsizing, the press can’t always be at the right place at the right time to capture important news as it happens. There aren’t as many resources, financial and human, as there used to be.

Journalists cannot be everywhere, although news organizations have often tried. They know that simply being there can often mean the difference between ignominy and the industry’s biggest prizes.

That’s why we follow our political leaders around on otherwise dull tours where they give the same old speeches — we never know when they’ll say something different, when someone will do something unscripted or stupid, or when disaster will strike.

The spoils go to those who are there as it happens.

But with staffing forever being cut in the face of corporate realities, we are increasingly not there to see it happen. We “pick up” all kinds of stories after the fact, from those involved, from experts, from eyewitnesses . . .

Sadly, the headline to his column – “Can we trust citizen journalists?” – is purely rhetorical. He admits to being skeptical about citizen journalism but beyond offering general points about professionals who question the trustworthiness of amateur footage and how they argue that they’re better trained to report these kinds of important stories, he avoids taking a strong stance on either side of the issue.

There’s no question that footage of the Kennedy Assassination and the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, all captured by non-professionals, played pivotal roles in the coverage of those stories. But because these newsworthy events were recorded by ordinary citizens unfamiliar with the tenets of journalism, it was up to professional reporters to dig deeper to find as much relevant information as possible to put that footage into its proper context.

Raw footage that shows an event worthy of the public’s interest is invaluable. But professional, more responsible journalists who know how to mold that video, along with other pertinent facts, into an accurate report are more so. It’s a continuing shame that media corporations don’t agree.

}}}full column{{{

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
5:30 p.m.

Published in: on October 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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