More than 20 years ago, an amateur Argentine videographer shot the film that helped accelerate the nation’s conversation concerning one its most explosive issues – race.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King ran foul of the L.A. Police Department and suffered a terrible beating. George Holliday caught the incident on his Sony Handycam and eventually leaked the video to a local TV station. As TV and media critic Eric Deggans wrote on CNN.com, Holliday unwittingly became a citizen journalist.
"Holliday became the leading edge in a revolution of technology and social attitude that has made amateur reporters of us all.
"In the process, journalism has increasingly transformed from a craft to an act; something a random club-goer initiates when 'Seinfeld' star Michael Richards tosses the n-word around onstage, or a traveling entrepreneur from Florida can practice when a passenger plane lands in the Hudson River, sending a picture via Twitter that travels across the globe in an instant."
Holliday’s decision to act stemmed from his desire to use the technology he just acquired to record a terrible wrong. Holliday then turned to the media to do something about it. Holliday may not have known it, but he was both citizen journalist and engaged citizen. Without an empowered, engaged society, citizen journalism dies on the vine.
In 1992, when the jury verdicts in the King case triggered widespread rioting, journalists across the country independently concluded it was time to examine race relations in their communities. At the Akron Beacon Journal, we examined the issue and engaged our community in an honest dialogue, based on facts and neighborhood trends. Where other newspapers dedicated scores of skilled journalists to the task, the Beacon Journal applied both reporting muscle and the gripping power of person-to-person interaction, stemming from focus groups and community meetings. Eventually, thousands in the Akron community took part. Eyes were opened, relationships were built, and we achieved the incremental change that eventually can lead to signficant societal progress.
The community was engaged.
The Beacon Journal won the Pulitzer Prize’s Gold Medal for Community Service for its reporting and its connection with the public. We were proud of both our work and our community.
Today, the media – and the global community overall -- benefit from the growing prevalence of engaged citizens and citizen journalists. Think of the images and information we would miss without them. As Deggans points out, without citizen journalists, would anyone have captured the heroism of Sully Sullenberger? Would the world have witnessed the initial hours of the valiant Haitian effort to survive a devastating earthquake? The riots in Iran? The recent revolutionary struggles in Libya? Would Egyptians have taken their first steps to become a free nation?
Gary Lee of PR analytics firm mBlast recently shared an interesting statistic at a PR measurement conference in Washington, D.C. He said there are 2 billion voices on the Internet today. Each of those voices has the potential to capture news, upload a video and captivate the world.
Sure, most of that information from those 2 billion will be poorly presented, some of it will be inaccurate and perhaps some will be purposely misconstrued. Some journalists argue that such dangers outweigh the benefits of citizen journalism.
But there is no denying the growing power of the George Hollidays of our world. The smartest media organizations know this. Citizen journalists feed the "Town Square" concept these media are fostering. It’s like gently blowing on sparks beside dry kindling.
Do you have any doubt that eventually, some of those sparks will take hold, to burn all the brighter, to engage us and accelerate our conversations?