Most of the eyewitness images of the Virginia Tech shootings came from amateurs using camera phones. The power of the mobile phone to capture history has been highlighted at major news stories such as the London Tube and the Mumbai rail bombings.
Graduate student Jamal Albarghouti supplied CNN with video of the Blacksburg shootings, taken with his cell phone. The sound of multiple shots can be heard on the video.
Albarghouti was about 60 metres from Norris Hall when the second round of shootings began. “When I saw the policemen taking their guns out, I knew this was serious,” he told CNN.
CNN has assembled a slideshow of eyewitness photographs at http://www.cnn.com/ interactive/us/0704/gallery.ireport.vt.shooting/frameset.exclude.html
Coverage of the London bombings on 7 July 2005 was a watershed for journalism in terms of audience-generated content. Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news, said 50 photographs and video clips taken with mobile phones arrived in the first hour of the first blast.
About 3,000 people posted still and video images to a site called Moblog UK in the days after the bombings. Alfie Dennen, co-founder of the site, said it was the first time this form of content had played such a significant part in a breaking news story in the UK.
In South Korea, more than 50,000 citizen reporters with cameras on their mobile phones are able to send live video to the OhmyNews.com site.
Jean Min, director of OhmyNews International, said any of the citizen reporters could shoot video and send it to a server. “From our server we can broadcast live to anywhere in the country.”
Citizen reporting involving images will become increasingly common because of the boom in the number of camera-enabled mobile phones. Research company IDC said a billion new mobile phones were sold in 2006, and almost half (460 million) had a built-in camera. In countries like Korea it is almost impossible to buy a new phone without a camera.
More than 200 million of the billion new phones were sold in China and India. Earlier this year India was reporting 6 million new phone subscribers a month, and China 5.25 million.
Part of the reason for the boom is the fall in prices. Phones sell for an average of $120 each in the western world, and about half that in the developing world. Twenty years ago, the first mobile phone sold in the United States cost $US 4,000, or about a tenth of the average family income.
In situations where nearly everyone has a camera-equipped mobile phone, and where Internet connectivity abounds, people on the spot will be supplying more and more coverage of news events. The Virginia Tech shootings may become recognised as a landmark event for citizen journalism.
Those images will join blog entries, Twitter posts, podcasts, moblogs, Flickr photo collections and YouTube videos as a massive visual record of how society is communicating. Most images that teenagers display on MySpace come from a camera phone.
Elsewhere in the world, journalists are embracing the mobile phone as a newsgathering tool. In the Philippines, all 16 reporters at Inquirer.net, the online site of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, carry a Nokia N80 for taking videos. If the story is urgent they send video wirelessly to the website.
JV Rufino, the site’s editor-in-chief, said multimedia was the future for journalism. Inquirer.net has also set up a video channel on YouTube to display its reporters’ footage.
Multimedia reporter Erwin Oliva did a video interview with me in Manila. Oliva said he enjoyed having access to “cool tools” but believed the bottom line was the need for good journalism. “We get the news out in the fastest way possible in as good a way as possible. But nothing beats good writing.”
Joey Alarilla, Infotech columnist at Inquirer.net, said he was proud of the way his reporters filed scores of breaking news stories a day. “In the near future we have to train them to look beyond the printed word, and think of how they can tell their stories via multimedia.”
The balance between reporter-generated and audience-generated content will provide an interesting study in years to come, as the number of camera-enabled phones continues to rise.
* Published in The Age May 2007 after Virginia Tech shootings