The rise of citizen journalism
From live blogs on 'Occupy' protests to footage of Syrian atrocities on YouTube, filmmakers now have access to a wealth of raw material – but can it all be trusted? * Monday 11 June 2012 00.29 BS
In a digital world with a whole host of different ways to communicate a factual message it is increasingly hard to judge the value of amateur eyewitness film shot on a mobile phone and posted on the internet against a considered, observational documentary broadcast on a traditional television channel. From the Occupy New York City bloggers, such as Tim Pool who has broadcast hours and hours of live reports from Zucotti Park in the city, to YouTube videos of citizens under fire from government forces in Syria – these incidents and more are changing the landscape of documentary filmmaking. This has been made possible by the technology they use, the distribution platforms that are now available and the passion of ordinary men and women to tell the kinds of extraordinary stories that were once the domain of professional documentary makers. Factual filmmaking has in some senses become hostage to these new, "immediate" technologies. But many working in the genre praise the developments for adding a richer dimension to current affairs and factual documentaries and everyone seems to agree that the genre will never be the same again. "Phone cameras and internet video must threaten broadcasters who think TV viewers will move away from them (and on to the web), but the collective arena is a hive of creativity," says documentary pioneer Molly Dineen. "It should add to what traditional documentary makers are doing and not take away." Roger Graef, award-winning filmmaker and founder of Films of Record, talks with enthusiasm about being able to source and use footage from social networks and YouTube to supplement what he shoots himself. In his film The Trouble with Pirates for Channel 4, Graef used "home video" footage shot by pirates and captives, material that he "wouldn't have gotten any other way" and that he says "made the film". But he also underlines the risks. "There are two big downsides to 'found' video: the first is provenance; it takes money and time to check that it is real and not faked; the second risk is that just because you can shoot on a camera phone doesn't mean you should. I worry that commissioners will use this as an excuse to cut budgets for factual even further." UKTV's general manager factual, Adrian Wills, says citizen journalists' footage and social media doesn't impact his programming but he concedes it is an increasingly important marketing tool. "Natural history and science is, I think, a different beast completely from current affairs programmes. Digital activity has found traction in reaction to news events and for live especially. I think for us the digital stuff is really about amplification around what we are doing already." But current affairs is clearly benefiting from citizen journalism and video testimony from ordinary citizens. "Social networks are opening up whole new vistas for documentary filmmakers," enthuses Chris Shaw, editorial director ITN Productions. "You can make the most amazing films using content from social networks, sometimes with the permission and sometimes without the permission of the people who shot them." Shaw says that ITN's documentary, Syria's Torture Machine, for Channel 4, drew on about 30,000 clips that have been uploaded on various social network sites, including "trophy videos" from Syrian military torturers and footage from local families and citizens caught up in demonstrations. "I think there is a sense that objective journalism is not the same as trawling social networks for citizen reportage and imagery, but there are two problems with that view," says Shaw. "First there are places like Syria where journalists haven't been able to go and second...