Citizen journalism and civil streets

A radio journalist interviews a character during an event to save the Daintree rainforest from logging.

Has the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras brought greater civility to public places? That is something Paul Kitano wrote about in his online work on Medium.

Paul said the presence of citizens with phone cameras can bring better behaviour and accountability to all, including the authorities. Referring to the conflict in the streets of Ferguson, USA, his article says that: “Phone cameras can be more powerful than M-16s to enforce a culture of civil behavior and accountability”.

I thought this true at the time, however events since Trump’s election demonstrate how, just as that technology can reveal politically-motivated violence, it can be used by potentially violent groups to recruit supporters by showing the street violence the groups cause. Politically, mobile phone photography and videography turns out to be a knife with two sharp edges.

There are other cameras on the streets. Surveillance cameras in public places were often installed to reduce crime like violence and robbery. They may be a psychological barrier, however their effectiveness was questioned a few years ago by author, Cory Doctorow, in the online magazine Boing Boing. He reported that “Only one crime was solved by each 1,000 CCTV cameras in London last year, a report into the city’s surveillance network has claimed.”

That seems a poor return on investment, however despite this there appears no likelihood that street cameras will be taken down. They are here to stay, as are security cameras in shopping malls and other places.

A role for citizen journalists

Citizen journalism has the potential to change the one-way monitoring of security cameras into the two-way monitoring of ‘coveillance’. Wikipedia defines that as ” …the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity, typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies”.

That activity the subject of coveillance can includes civic authorities going about their work. This is legal, as was clarified by the NSW police commissioner some years ago when the question of the legality of people videoing police was raised. It is legal in other jurisdictions as well.

How do citizen journalists properly go about making their contribution to coveillance? Preferably, by openly filming, photographing and reporting on an incident. When that is not possible because of participant hostility, a more covert form of videoing is justified. When done for publication, the criteria for making a video or still photographs and textual report of some incident is the public interest test: is the relevance of the event or incident of some importance to the public?

The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process. That is why there is a public service ethic at the heart all of serious journalism…

The question helps us distinguish between things of public interest and private affairs. Private can sometimes be of public interest, of course, such as when some private activity has social impact. It is the difference, for example, of putting video of a private family event online and revealing how members of a family business are planning something that would negatively impact the public sphere.

…people who are public figures — politicians, or corporate leaders, or people who exploit and rely on their public image for their livelihood, or who carry a public responsibility such as police officers, teachers and doctors — are sometime people whose private affairs may have an important impact on their public duties…

A public program of citizen journalism

Paul Kitano writes that the ubiquity of mobile phone cams and city street cameras can reduce both crime and the misuse of power by authorities. He proposes this can be taken further: “Every city should arm their citizens with a program for citizen journalism.

“The program should teach citizens how to organize as a community watch group and use video to enforce civil accountability from all angles.

“People need to understand basic rules of media journalism so they distribute content that doesn’t incite violence or have destructive or hateful motives. Citizens should understand how to edit media and how to use social media to distribute content”.

It is this last point that is most pertinent because it is the ubiquity of cameras, most notably those ready-to-go types in mobile phones that, when combined with social media, are the key to successful coviellance. What was previously hidden can now be revealed.

How such a scheme would come about is unknown, however it suggests that citizen organisations could train people in the skills of citizen journalism and compile their work on a website. A website reporting local affairs, for example, could cover affairs political and cultural and report on proposed developments and council meetings. Done by volunteers, that would require a high level of organisation and could garner a sizable local following.

Read Paul Kitano’s story:

Paul Kitano’s collection on Medium: