The Partial CameramanThe Partial Cameraman

Mobile phone filming a Libyan demonstration

Much is made of the role of the media in creating and supporting democracy. A key part of this is the ability of anyone to turn to the media, and on merit, have their story or point of view reported. Sometimes ordinary people create the content itself – ‘citizen journalism’ is a modern and powerful phenomenon. Recent protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East prove this again. But there may also be a significant but hidden move away from the impartial media we instinctively trust. 

A professional cameraperson will stand back from the action, and objectively select a range of pictures to be edited. But in the recent uprisings, many of the pictures we have seen in Western media have been taken by those actually involved in the trouble. Their images and video films, shot often on mobile phones and uploaded to sites such as YouTube have been used frequently by broadcasters, or appeared in papers. Nearly always they’re all that is available to the media who are themselves banned from access. But this also marks a step change in the standpoint of the media which though subtle, and often unrecognised, has significant implications.

When we watch our news, we assume that all involved in the process to create the story – the reporter, cameraperson, editorial staff and production team are impartial. They’re presenting the story based on facts for us to make our minds up about. In most professional organisations this impartiality and ‘balance’ are essential to ensure the trust of the viewer or reader. However citizen journalists are rarely impartial.

Those taking pictures from riots in Cairo, Tripoli or wherever, and then uploading them for public view, are themselves often involved in the protests and are demonstrating. The very act of uploading is part of their process of bringing about political change – they hope the publicity and the media coverage will influence world opinion against the person they are also attacking. And in using these images the media become part of the process of destabilisation. They cease to be impartial.

There are two sides to every story. We may feel very strongly about one side over the other – and indeed this may be the side of the protester. But when we’re seeing just one point of view, and those involved in the telling of it including the cameraperson have an interest in that, perhaps the audience should be made more aware.

There is also the risk, one the media worry about constantly, that the events are actually staged just to gain media coverage. Or that in an overwhelmingly peaceful event there is one violent act which happens to be filmed. Because this is all the audience sees, we assume the whole event is violent. The reporting ceases simply to be an impartial third person view of events which are happening through a natural process. There is no way of of us, or the media, judging this with citizen journalism.

The innocent on screen ‘Mobile Phone Footage’ caption (where used) doesn’t just tell us why the technical quality can be poor – it should also make it clear that what we are seeing doesn’t meet the usual standards of impartiality and objectivity to which we’re accustomed to in an open and democratic society. The sort of society which ironically is probably what the people taking and distributing these images are fighting for.