Technology is democratising news gathering

Television news technology has come a long way from 16mm film to today's videophones, which can provide us pictures of the news as it unfolds. Consumer cameras and phones can capture news as never before. Instead of the eyewitness account, shot when the crew arrives, we can see what actually happened.

Television news organizations are always looking for unusual, exclusive or sensational pictures in the drive for ratings, and citizens' news is a new slant. This innovation in gathering news is not without attendant issues. There is an immediacy that can lead to lack of editorial control. In the heat of the moment, inappropriate pictures can be aired, perhaps of human suffering.

There is another side to the advances in technology. In the days of film, you needed a high-speed film processor and a telecine, plus all the television apparatus. Videophones have given citizens the ability to make their own news and then distribute it via the Internet. The blogging phenomenon has shown how the usual news channels can be completely bypassed.

To the news organisation, consumer technology offers a new source of compelling pictures, but it also represents competition — one that is operating outside their business models.

To government regulators, citizen reporters represent a different problem. Governments and law enforcement agencies like control, from the police cordoning off a crime scene to the many restrictions on reporting war.

Back in the 16mm era, the Vietnam War was known for a lack of news management. The public saw a war that the politicians may not have wanted it to see. When the British became involved in the Falkland Islands conflict, news gatherers had a different problem. All backhaul from this remote place had to use military facilities, and with that came control over content.

A lot has changed since then. There is improved satellite coverage, and uplinks are small and lightweight. However, there are still many issues for news crews. Although the equipment allows live coverage from almost anywhere around the globe, war has become more dangerous for the press. The battlefield can be so dangerous that the press has to embed with the military for its own protection — back to managed news again.

The London tube bombings was one of the first times that video pictures from cellular phones have been used in news reports. Local television stations were under great pressure not to use pictures ahead of the controlled release of news by the authorities. It turned out that people on the other side of the world were more up-to-date with information than people in London.

Technology is providing the means to democratize news gathering and to provide more immediate and intimate coverage. Both broadcasters and governments are finding it difficult to keep pace with this new technology and with the political and ethical issues that stem from citizen photographers and journalists bypassing the usual channels. Again, technology provides both the solution and the problem.

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