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''I, Reporter''? No, ''iReporter''

citizen journalismCNNcrashF/A-18D

F/A-18D, crash, CNN, citizen journalism After an F/A-18D military jet crashed into a San Diego neighborhood Monday, I caught a bit of something I hadn't heard about before -- a CNN on-the-scene phone account from an ''iReporter.''

This woman evidently lived close enough to the crash site to see what was happening, and was telling her impressions to the CNN anchor. But whenever the anchor asked for hard specifics -- how many people in the jet, whether he or she or they ejected safely, the sort of thing that constitutes the core of news reporting -- the ''iReporter'' had to keep referring to what that she'd seen or heard on the local news.

CNN's website is recruiting accounts from iReporters the world over; so many people have video and photo capability in their pockets, thanks to cell phones, that no disaster of any magnitude seems to go unrecorded.

But actual reporting another matter. You can't blame a news operation for wanting the immediacy and the visuals of the moment. And free labor is nothing to turn up your nose at, especially when real-time accounts from around the world make today's shoestring news operations seem mightier and more bulked-up than they really are.

As for the theory that anyone can be an ''iReporter,'' as the San Diego crash account shows, there is more to reporting than pointing your cellphone camera in the right direction and telling the world that what you're seeing is ''awful'' or ''terrible'' (words which can apply to just about any disaster, but which say virtually nothing about the disaster at hand).

In journalism, we call these people ''eyewitnesses,'' and we interview them and blend their personal accounts, along with the vital facts and figures that we report, too, and that becomes ''the story.'' The CNN anchor did exactly that job, and if it had been called an interview with an eyewitness, rather than a report from an ''iReporter,'' I would have no quarrel with it at all.

CNN's website offers an iReporter's ''toolkit,'' with some journalism basics and points about truth and fairness. But these useful instructions about the principles and practices of journalism aren't likely to be uppermost in the mind of someone who's just seen body parts scatter in a terrorist bombing. Professionals in any field -- medicine, fire-fighting, journalism -- know how to keep their heads and swing into action and get the job done, all the more so in a crisis or disaster.

The cell phone visuals and eyewitness accounts lend immediacy, but they are only a part of any story. A picture conveys sensation, not information. So here's the scene of a shooting -- horrible, right? But without the words to report it, how can we assess what the image means? Is that a body of an innocent bystander? Or an al Qaeda loyalist? Same image, two entirely different messages to take away from it, once the facts are known.

Having the fingertip technology to record an event doesn't make the owner of the cellphone a candidate for the Pulitzer or Polk Award, any more than buying a typewriter makes you a novelist.

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

 

Comments () | Archives (4)

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Anon

You ought to be ashamed of yourself for having such arrogance combined with disdain for your audience. And on a day like today when there's so much important news, this is what you have for the public? No wonder they take it upon themselves to do their own reporting.

David Cay Johnston

Patt, your critique is right on target.

We used to just call people who witnessed events "sources" and name them when we quoted them or paraphrased them.

As LAT reporters who had to take great care with the observations of sources, who often spoke honestly about what they thought they saw, but who also often got it wrong because they were not trained observers, were caught off guard or were themselves scared by the events they saw. What they told us was not always what actually happened, which is why eyewitness accounts were checked and cross-checked, if there were multiple witnesses.

I recall one young LATimes tryout reporter who, about 1980, accepted as fact what witnesses said about a violent confrontation with the police. When the police showed that these sources were provably wrong the reporter was fired. Too harsh perhaps for a novice error, but it is a grave institutional error to confuse reporting with witnessing.

Check-it-out remains the first rule of journalism.

Attribution to sources, not calling them reporters, remains another important rule. It does not add to costs, only to credibility.

HackTurnedFlack

I couldn't agree more. Calling an eyewitness a reporter is like calling me a pharmacist because I dispense aspirin to my family.

Mike

Excellent, and very fair, column. Journalists saying any form of "citizen journalism" is worthless miss the point (in a crisis almost any information is good, since you're going to check it all out anyway), and people praising citizen journalists at the inferred detriment of professionals is foolish. The average citizen only visits the courthouse to pay speeding tickets.


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