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American Journalism Review
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 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   April 2003

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Posting photos from readers and viewers can broaden coverage while engaging the audience.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (, AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

All day Monday, February 17, as the Northeast lay paralyzed by a record snowfall, my friends in the weather department were socked by a blizzard of digital photos of dogs frolicking in the snow. There were also hundreds of pictures of buried cars, kids stuffed into snowsuits and yardsticks stuck in snowdrifts.

Our company runs Web sites for TV stations. People e-mail us photos of storm damage, or pets dressed in baby clothes and other evidence of their personal pastimes, whether we ask for them or not. In this case we had put out a request for snow photos, which editors at each station compiled into online slide shows.

For years news sites have been practicing variations on this theme. It's not just a vanity exercise for amateur photographers. Call it voyeurism or human interest, but something compels people to click through endless photos of kittens or holiday decorations or hunting trophies.

Arguably, there is news value in using backyard photos to show the extent of a heavy storm--but that's only a hint of things to come. As technology marches on, the media are exploring new opportunities to recruit audience members to report actual news.

Two hours after the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas on February 1, Dallas Web Sites (the online partnership of the Dallas Morning News, WFAA-TV and Texas Cable News) began requesting digital pictures and written accounts from people who had witnessed the tragedy or found debris. Within two days, the site's programmers had compiled a striking presentation called "Witnesses to history." Visitors can search the photos and text entries by keyword or use a pull-down menu to view accounts from more than 50 cities.

Before the antiwar protests on February 15, BBC News requested pictures from people planning to participate. As the rallies were taking place, published galleries of amateur snapshots from Amsterdam to Tokyo, with cutlines provided by the photographers.

Like Dallas Web Sites' shuttle story, the BBC's demonstration coverage had plenty of material from real reporters and photojournalists, including robust collections of news service photos. But the eyewitnesses provided more: more locations, more angles, more humanity.

That's a giant leap from the usual modes of "participation" in online news, such as polls, discussion boards and memorials--none of which is part of breaking news or actual reporting.

It makes sense that digital images would be one of the first, best ways for people to take part in real-time journalism. Pictures speak clearly and quickly. They don't require copyediting, and they're more credible than memory.

We've been down this path before; for years television news has used fortuitous amateur video. The problem has been that until recently, camcorders were unwieldy and often reserved for tourist attractions and spectator events.

Today's digital cameras (which often include video capability) are compact and lightweight. They are becoming an inexpensive accessory to digital phones, enabling someone to snap a decent-quality shot and send it on the spot. Imagine readers or viewers spontaneously sending images from natural disasters, major traffic accidents and other breaking news scenes.

Is deception a risk? You bet your Nokia it is--but not an unusual one. People try to dupe reporters all the time, and they succeed too often. There's no easy way to know that a photograph wasn't doctored, that it was taken by the person who sent it, or even that it depicts what it claims to. Common sense favors pictures of events that are already reported and that happened in a public place. If a photo looks the least bit incredible or aims to settle a controversy, check it out or chuck it.

Limitations aside, this is a great convergence opportunity. It's a productive way to engage your audience. It can result in exclusive content and a competitive edge. And--for the hit counters out there--photo galleries are an easy way to generate page views.

The decision to solicit images shouldn't be an impulsive one, however. You'll need the capacity to receive lots of large files and a journalist with the time and judgment to select and publish the best. You'll also need a terms-of-use notice dealing with permission to publish the material along with certain information about the sender. And you'll save headaches by specifying the size and format of images you'll accept.

It's also a fine idea to prime the pump and have some fun in the process. The launchpad for the BBC's antiwar photo project was a new ongoing collection of assorted pics from viewers published every Friday. And WFAA-TV maintains a weekly slide show of pet photos. Gets 'em every time.



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