Citizen videos take us to corners of the world that reporters cannot access, and put us on the scene long before investigators arrive. Average citizens now have an unprecedented ability to record, upload, and share what they see.

Citizen video was responsible for the rapid circulation of news of Oscar Grant's fatal shooting.
Citizen video was responsible for the rapid circulation of news of Oscar Grant’s fatal shooting.

Think of the death of Oscar Grant in California, where video taken by fellow passengers was used to instantly spread awareness of his shooting by a transit officer, and was submitted as evidence in his court trial. Or the war in Syria, where mainstream news is banned but civilians and soldiers have taken up cameras and YouTube accounts to document the uprising. Citizen video is changing the roles of reporters, editors, and audiences. And it’s raising new technical and ethical concerns for those covering the news. Among them:

  • How can we be sure a video is what it purports to be? The viral (and fake) Eagle Snatches Kid video is just the latest example of the need for verification.
  • How can an online community of strangers help reporters research and report a news story? And how can they muddy the waters?
  • Do news outlets have an obligation to protect viewers from graphic violence and vicarious trauma?
  • What is the difference between aggregating citizen video and contextualizing it?
  • Does an individual have a right to the privacy of his or her own death? Or, when it’s part of a news story like Daniel Pearl’s or Neda Agha-Soltan’s, is there a public right to watch and share?
CC Image courtesy of Wonderlane on Flickr.
CC Image courtesy of Wonderlane on Flickr.

For the next several weeks, leading innovators in citizen media reporting will join the Human Rights Channel to explore these questions here on the WITNESS blog. Every other Monday through the spring, we’ll tackle a different aspect of citizen video journalism. Steering clear of navel-gazing, the series will focus on practicalities. We’ll ask the questions that reporters, editors, and curators must ask when using citizen footage. We’ll look at tools and strategies that can harness the power of citizen witnesses while maintaining journalistic integrity and ethical standards. Among other topics, our guest authors will discuss:

  • Sourcing Citizen video
    New York Times journalist Liam Stack
    , editor of Watching Syria’s War, will discuss how to find compelling citizen video among a deluge of content.
  • The Role of Online Communities
    NPR strategist Andy Carvin
    will take on the role that social media can play in sourcing, verifying, and understanding citizen videos.
  • Verifying Citizen Video
    Storyful’s Claire Wardle & Della Kilroy
    will outline how reporters can ascertain if a video is authentic or dubious.
  • Contextualizing Citizen Video
    Syria Deeply founder Lara Setrakian will discuss strategies to add value through contextualization.

This series will also include thoughts from citizen journalists themselves. We’ll feature a citizen reporting organization discussing how news organizations can collaborate with local communities to report a story. Finally, a leader in the tech industry will address the tools and strategies that can help protect citizen reporters and the people they film. These are issues we consider and debate every day as we curate citizen video on the Human Rights Channel. It is a new landscape, and we must move forward with caution, innovation, and constant evaluation.  As in so many aspects of the changing media ecosystem, there are no rules when it comes to citizen media reporting. It is a scary and liberating prospect.

So let’s feel out the landscape together, point out where we must use caution and seeing which directions leads to illumination. Join us in the comment section and when we host live online forums to share your thoughts and questions about authenticity, safety, ethics, journalism, and technology.

Madeleine Bair curates the Human Rights Channel for WITNESS, a collaboration with Storyful, hosted on YouTube. Follow her at @MadBair, and follow the Channel at @ytHumanRights.

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