War Reporting By The People

A new reality television show that follows around New York journalists debuts tonight on Bravo and kinda underscores a weird dynamic that’s going on in the world today. Because, while New York Daily News reporters may be getting some lime light on Bravo, teenagers and young adults in southern Lebanon and northern Israel are producing video diaries and blogs that document what life is like in the middle of a war.

Fifteen years old and already a war correspondent.

It’s a weird shift. Over the last two decades, journalists have increasingly moved from the realm of the fly-on-the-wall reporter to the center of media attention themselves. Over the last half a decade, normal citizens have become disseminators of news.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that journalists (even the ones appearing on the Bravo show) are incapable of doing an ethical, unbiased job of reporting the news if they become the center of attention. I’m also not suggesting that citizens are doing the job of journalists (and, certainly, I’m not saying that citizens are presenting news in the same way that a journalist would).

Instead, it’s almost like journalists and citizens are growing together, moving towards some distant intersection. Real media has been flirting with the same channels used by grass-roots journalism for years, producing blogs, allowing comments on stories, and even having a user-edited wiki-style editorial at one point in time. Usually these efforts have been met with not a lot of success. However, some of the most riveting and moving pieces written by journalists during Hurricane Katrina came not from a newspaper, but from the New Orleans Times-Picayune staff that posted to the paper’s blog as they were holed up in the Picayune’s building at the storm battered and raged around them.

While it may not resonate with the Xanga blogger who writes about her high school classes, boy troubles or fashion disasters, a lot of folks have argued that blogs and free video publishing sites like YouTube are the Guttenberg printing press to the media’s Catholic Church. In a sense, I believe this is true. An argument can be made that journalism has begun shaping the news by telling people what’s important, instead of informing citizens by reporting on what readers thing is important (For a wonderful example of this, take a look at decreasing national crime rates but the perception that crime is becoming more common). In a way, the fourth estate has stopped catering to its rightful masters, the public, and instead become another powerful influencer.

On the other hand, as a former journalist myself, I know that this is only part of the truth. There’s not a grand conspiracy by news organizations (most news organizations, that is), to alter public perception and, for the most part, every journalist I’ve met has been a person dedicated to informing the public and willing to work pretty darn hard, and be reviled as a muckraker, for not a lot of money.

To put it simply, the rise of consumer-generated news is not the average joe rebelling against a corrupt system that intends to keep the general public in the dark ages. The truth is much more complex than that, and this kind of description does a disservice not only to the journalists of the world, but also to the content creators themselves. They are not journalists and describing them in the same language robs them of the most vital aspects of what they’re doing.

Even though the relationship between the modern public and the media is not the same as it was between the Catholic Church and the lay people, the reaction is strikingly similar. There was initial a strong reaction against the printing press by the Catholic Church, which contemplated licensing anyone who owned one. Those rare few who had libraries often stood in the way of printers, fearing that the mass production of literature would devalue their own handwritten reserves.

In time, we’ll see that the rise of consumer-generated content (and citizen-generated news) has effects as far-reaching and pervasive as the printing press, which not only allowed for the mass distribution of printed material and caused an increase in literacy, but also gave rise to copyright law, allowed standardized versions of the classical works to be discussed by the masses, and caused the scientific revolution by allowing for the dissemination of scientific works through a world-wide community of scientists.

The power of a medium that can make a 15-year-old girl a war correspondent is undeniable. And while journalists continue to do an important job of documenting both the big and small events that make up the Israel-Lebanon war, what will be most memorable to me isn’t an article the appears in a newspaper.

It’s a 24-year-old Lebanese man documenting the post-apocalyptic emptiness of Beirut streets and the desperate late-night revel occurring in Lebanese night clubs, as if the world may end tomorrow.

It’s a young Israeli girl holding back tears as she about as not knowing if her friends are alright because she hasn’t left her house in 12 days and about how her family uses her brother’s room as a bomb shelter because it only has one outside wall.

What I will remember most is these people, looking into the black, unblinking eye of a webcam, reaching out, hoping that, somewhere, someone is watching.