Cellphones: Transforming the world of media

It was not 20 minutes after a bomb blast in Chad and the footage was already being aired on al-Jazeera. The cameraman, Laith Mushtaq, had just popped down to the hotel lobby to buy a sim card, when the bomb exploded.

He had left his camera upstairs in his hotel room, but he had his cellphone. Waving his press card in one hand, his cameraphone in the other, he managed to capture shocking images that reached the newsroom in record time.
People were screaming, lying in pools of their own blood, some without their legs.

Al-Jazeera is keeping track of how mobile advancements are creating new opportunities for news reportage.

Safdar Mustafa, the head of the mobile media unit at al-Jazeera, told delegates at the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg that cellphones were becoming vital tools in reporting.

Mustafa said that while cellphones should not be seen as a replacement for traditional equipment, they could broaden and deepen the station’s news-gathering reach.

He said footage from a camera phone, such as the Nokia N95 with its five-megapixel camera, was certainly broadcast quality. Importantly, cellphones were also small and unobtrusive, which meant they could be smuggled into sensitive areas.

In another example, reporters were sent into the Sahara with cellphones, and managed to capture striking images of the Tuareg rebels. Mustafa said it was vital to have a big car battery, showing a photograph of four phones and a laptop perched on the bumper of a vehicle in the desert.

Location-tagger applications can also be saved on the phone before the reporter leaves, so that for every photograph that is taken, its position is logged using GPS.

Durability of the phone is also a critical issue. The phones that came back from the desert were clogged with sand, and the shutter on one was jammed open.

Mustafa said al-Jazeera was also looking at citizen journalism, similar to CNN’s ireport, but “we want to do it right”.

He said there were implications such as accountability and levels of trust.

“People don’t want to pay for news,” he said, adding that al-Jazeera is not in the business to make money, but trying to reach as broad an audience as possible.

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