Stringwire: More Dangers in Citizen Journalism

by Jonathan Berr | August 12, 2013 1:17 pm

Stringwire: More Dangers in Citizen Journalism

Just because you can ace No. 15 on the putt-putt course doesn’t mean you’re the next Tiger Woods.

Along those same lines, being able to point your iPhone video camera at a house fire doesn’t necessarily make you a journalist.

Being a journalist, in my humble opinion, requires skill and (dare I say) talent. That’s why many professional journalists view the growth of citizen journalism with some degree of suspicion. But it’s a trend that’s here to stay, and news organizations such as NBC News are trying to capitalize on it.

The news organization owned by Comcast (CMCSA[1]) today announced that it had acquired a small startup called Stringwire, which has created a service that would enable it to request video from a network of what it calls “verified contributors” when there is a big news story breaking. Phil Groman developed the service as a graduate student at New York University, and now is joining NBC News as a product lead to finish developing Stringwire.

As described by The New York Times[2], Stringwire seems kind of neat. People who tweet when they witness a newsworthy event will be sent a link that will instruct them to click on a link and shoot video of what they are seeing. A separate app isn’t required.

One question that NBC needs to figure out is what, if anything, Stringwire contributors will be paid.

“The only answer at this point is that we’re evaluating options,” writes Meghan Pianta, an NBC News spokeswoman, in an email to InvestorPlace. “Eyewitness participation will be voluntary regardless. We wouldn’t be using video without anyone’s consent no matter what. Right now we’re just excited about a new way to gather the news and serve our audiences. The business terms will come.”

It will be interesting to see whether NBC News decides to lay off any professional videographers if Stringwire proves to be successful. CNN did that a few years ago after its iReports gained traction. Moreover, NBC News is losing ground in the television ratings war to Walt Disney’s (DIS[3]) ABC, so the pressure is on the organization to keep a close eye on costs.

Although NBC told the Times that Stringwire video will be vetted like anything else submitted to the network, exactly how that will happen isn’t clear. In some areas of the world, such as Syria, where millions of people have died in a bloody civil war, that might be especially difficult. Any Syrians posting footage of the carnage in their country might be reluctant to provide their actual names to a foreign news organization.

News organizations also have to be leery about dealing with amateurs, even well-meaning ones. They might not understand the need to check facts — even small ones, such as how a person’s name is spelled or what it is that they are shooting. Some might not know that it’s wrong to stage events for dramatic effect. This sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood, when paparazzi try to anger celebrities so they can shoot even more dramatic video to hopefully sell for big money.

Citizen journalists (a term I hate because professional journalists are citizens, too) might not understand the difference between journalism, propaganda and public relations. Such confusion is understandable since the lines separating these activities continue to blur and occasionally trip up even professional journalists.

News is too important to be left to amateurs alone. These citizen journalists are a good addition to professionals, but shouldn’t be a substitute for them.

Unfortunately, given the cost pressures facing NBC News and other outfits, that’s the direction things are headed.

As of this writing, Jonathan Berr did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter@jdberr.

Endnotes:
  1. CMCSA: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=CMCSA
  2. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/12/business/media/nbc-buying-web-service-to-stream-phone-video.html?smid=tw-share&_r=2&
  3. DIS: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=DIS

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