Era of citizen journalists dawns in Britain

An era of “citizen journalists” is dawning in Britain as media organisations turn increasingly to their viewers and readers to beef up news coverage, particularly with amateur photographs.

The amateur photographer already has an agency “Scoopt” to disseminate reports or images taken on the spot, while the budding writer can replace professionals in The Guardian newspaper’s thick Saturday travel section.

As soon as there is a major unexpected event, a script runs at the bottom of the screens on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or Sky News inviting members of the public to send digital photographs to the company’s e-mail address.

The July 7 terrorist bombings on three London subway trains and a bus were a watershed in the news business; most of the on-scene bombing images carried on the television and in newspapers were the work of amateurs.

The professional may still be master of all he surveys—or over the news that is programmed or anticipated—but there is increasing scope for the amateur.

Armed with a cellphone camera or digital camera, any eyewitness now has the technical means to become a journalist for a day.

“People do like to contribute to the news and get a kick out of it, quite a big thrill,” according to Kyle MacRae, the founder of Scoopt.

Founded in Glasgow, Scotland in July, the agency claims 4 300 members—to be sure some of them are not very active—in 80 countries without the benefit of advertising.

The Scoopt website urges surfers to “sell your photos to the press” in return for a 50% share of profits.

Scoopt uses photos of events like car accidents for immediate local interest, storms for regional interest and serious crimes, such as the recent shooting of a policewoman, for national viewers.

It also accepts photos of celebrities, meaning that there is now a “paparazzo” behind a cellphone camera on every street corner or supermarket.

Scoopt is building an electronic archive of photographs which can only be used by media subscribers and retains exclusive rights for three months on photos held for distribution.

The national newspapers and large television networks consider Scoopt as a source of content just like any other photographic agency.

Debate is swirling over whether there should be payment for such amateur photos, MacRae said. “We have some disagreement and a healthy debate with the unions.”

James Weeks, the director of technology at Sky News, admitted sometimes amateur contributors were paid.

“In general we don’t but I would not say we never paid,” he added.

The BBC’s interactive department said public contributions were a means to build “a good relationship with our viewers,” but it declined to outline its policy despite requests for comment from Agence France Presse.

At The Guardian, managing editor Chris Eliott said there was no question of compensating contributions from readers, which until now are limited to the travel pages.

“It would be like paying for letters on the letter page,” he said.

Like the BBC, The Guardian says the initiative stimulates greater interaction with its readership.

Worried about the trend, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is drafting a code of conduct towards these new journalists, a term that must first be defined. The NUJ prefers to call them “citizen witnesses” or “witness contributors.” - AFP

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