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Using the power of “citizen journalism”

The day after the first anniversary of the London transport bombings Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited, says the media have yet to harness the power of citizen journalism. She writes about a “newsroom nirvana” being sought in which a network of contributors springs up which could “very easily form the backbone of daily coverage where there are not enough reporting resources”.

As an example of the growth of reader contributions she writes that 10,000 people have contributed to the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog since it was started in March. And she deals with the way the BBC handled email queues to distribute material to the most appropriate outlets.

While 7/7 marked a major change in newsroom attitudes to “citizen journalism” through the availability of camera phone pictures there is still long way to go. Pictures are relatively easy because a good image is clearly and quickly identifiable and there has hardly been time for manipulation in the heat of a breaking story. Words are more difficult and likely to be contradictory.

On that morning a year ago there was another problem as mobile phone networks went down in the confusion. I arrived in central London on just about the last public transport into the disaster zone. I soon found myself at police road blocks where reporters and cameramen (lenses focused on distant fire engines) stood bemused. Without mobile phones they could not even reach their offices to find out what was the story they were covering.

That was not the case this week when the Valencia tube disaster happened. Juan Varela, in his Periodistas 21 blog (in Spanish), points to the problems of contradictory information and an over-abundance of testimony creating counter-productive noise.

It has always been difficult for journalists in the office pulling-together a story from often contradictory agency and staff reports and reader phone calls, to judge what should be printed or broadcast. The greatly increased levels of direct reader, via text messages and emails, input makes those hurried judgements more difficult.

PS I am hesitant about using the term “citizen journalism” in this context as we are really talking about a huge increase in the traditional reader tip-offs and submitted pictures. That is why it is in quotes in the headline.

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