Video site scooped the journalism star
Controversies that sprang from information obtained by average citizens used to be filtered by traditional journalists, but sites like YouTube are helping cut out the middle man.
Could YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen become this generation's version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the famed newspaper reporters who broke the Watergate scandal?
Probably not, but their site has quickly become a competitor to investigative journalists everywhere. There used to be a time when people with information about corporate misdeeds, government corruption or police brutality would go to CNN, The Washington Post or their local newspaper. Now, who needs traditional media when anyone can just film wrongdoers in action and post it online?
Citizen journalists illustrated their growing power this weekend when a, a New York City policeman, body slamming a bicyclist in what appears to be an unprovoked attack. On Sunday, the videographer posted it to YouTube. Sure there were also eyewitnesses, but the video may prove most damning for it differs dramatically with what the officer said happened in his report.
The policeman has been assigned to desk duty and the department has launched an investigation. Once again, YouTube has handed individual members of the public the ability to challenge a version of events presented by a powerful entity.
When one reflects on the controversies in this country's history that sprang from information obtained by average citizens, it's clear most of them were delivered to the public after first being filtered through a major news organization or government body.
The leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg; the film of President John Kennedy's assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder, the police beating of motorist Rodney King videotaped by George Holliday.
Had those events occurred now, it's possible some of them would have ended up on YouTube. Would the reaction have been the same? For years, Zapruder and some news organizations refused to show the scene of Kennedy's head being blown apart. The public didn't see the films in their entirety until 1975, 12 years after Kennedy's death.
Did that decision spare an already demoralized public even more shock? Or did it rob them of the opportunity to learn everything about the death of their president?
"In the old world, (traditional media) used to be the gatekeepers," said Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and a former Ombudsman at The Washington Post. "The fact is those gates have been torn down...We have to figure out how to use the new tools of new media and how to work with citizens who are producing this kind new journalism."
The video-sharing phenomenon has emerged at a time when much of the public is mistrustful of the information provided by the government and professional news organizations. Some have turned to blogs and message boards for news. But YouTube, like no other site, has earned a reputation for providing citizen journalists with a podium that has the potential to reach millions across the globe.
The rewards of enabling individuals to report the news is easy to see. Corruption, brutality, and injustice have been exposed in situations where members of traditional media weren't around.
Government crackdowns in Burma and Tibet meant foreign journalists were often unable to get footage of the civil unrest in those countries. Sure enough, the world could see what was happening at YouTube, where witnesses posted videos.
A policeman near St. Louis suggested that he could send Brett Darrow, 20, to jail on trumped up charges. While Darrow's car-mounted video camera was rolling, the officer shouted: "Do you want to go to jail for some (expletive) reason I come up with?" And later he added: "I don't really care about your cameras."
It's probably safe to say the officer does now. He was later fired.
But was he right when he said he could he have successfully railroaded Darrow? Would anyone have believed Darrow had he been without the video? Would the police department have been under as much pressure to take action if Darrow had only gone to the local paper or TV station with the video?
The other side of the argument is that someone could misuse the power provided by YouTube and the Internet to distribute false information. Videotape has been tampered with before. And even when it's not, it can still be used to inflict damage.
A young woman on a train in South Korea refuses to clean up her dog's poop. Someone videotapes the event and the woman becomes a figure of contempt on the Web and known as "The Dog Poop Girl." She's stalked and ridiculed by angry Internet users and eventually the public condemnation forces her to quit school and go into hiding.
Providing audiences with verification of stories produced by unknowns could be an important contribution for traditional media, said Overholser.
She said that newspapers and local TV stations can also provide context, gather interviews and flush out stories produced by non professionals. That's what the New York Post did after the body-slamming NYPD video surfaced. The Post was quick to post a report on their Web site that included the officer's name, what he said in his report (that the bicyclist ran him over) and that he was a third-generation policeman.
"I would argue that when something likes this appears on Youtube," Overholser said, "and I see stories about it at Washingtonpost.com or Latimes.com, I would like it to mean that the papers have verified that the videotape is legitimate."