Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Getting to know a citizen journalist’s universe


Steve Garfield always thought his fate was already decided for him. After receiving his bachelors degree in business administration, the logical next step was going into the administration business. But Garfield had other ideas for himself.

His real passion had always been media, so during his college years at University of Massachusetts Amherst he was a DJ on his own radio show. Later he did some public access television production and hosting. When the time came to get a job with a real salary, he worked as a computer programmer and salesman for many years. But one day while working as a web consultant, he got a camera, a Macintosh, Final Cut Pro software, and started producing video in house and uploading it to the web. And that was the moment when his life began to change.

Labeling Garfield’s job is not easy. He defines himself as a video blogger, media producer, speaker, teacher and citizen journalist. On his website people can learn how to video blog, and link to Garfield’s videos, photographs, blogs, online radio shows and lecture videos. Through Twitter, he shares videos about his daily routine activities with other users. When he goes to the grocery store, he records what he’s buying. Why would anyone care about what Garfield is buying in the grocery store? It’s hard to believe, but there are 6000 people who follow him and who get this kind of information several times a day, every day.

He knows how to take full advantage of available technology and knows how to use it to promote his product: himself. And he says this skill made him accomplish many things, like becoming an instructor at Boston University teaching new media tools to journalism students.

Garfield's interview
To see more photos, click here

Adam Gaffin, executive editor of Network World Online and creator of the site Universal Hub, knows Garfield’s work very well. They worked together several years ago in the creation of Universal Hub. Currently he links regularly to Garfield’s videos. “He’s very well known as a web video person. He has come up with a lot of interesting stuff. For example he figured out how to use the software Qik for live blogging. The people who had built this company didn’t know that you could do that, and he figured out that having essentially two channels, we could do some live conferencing on it. He’s very technically oriented, but at the same time very down to earth,” says Gaffin.

Garfield also found in technology a way of doing something few people have the opportunity otherwise: becoming a reporter and the star of his own shows. But Garfield is not the only one doing this.

He is just one of the millions of people around the world who, like him, became “reporters” with just the access to a camera and internet: citizen journalists. Even though these citizen journalists have been around for several years, it has only been in recent years that their work has been in the spotlight. Their apparent continuous growth not only raises the issue of whether bloggers and ordinary citizens should be classified as journalists, but many legal and ethical issues as well. So how does Garfield’s work fit in this context?


For Garfield, citizen journalism should not be a controversial issue anymore. He believes it has a positive impact in the society, and he has some personal experiences to prove his points.

Citizen journalism can expose the bare reality. Garfield says having as many citizen observers and witnesses of events will make information more transparent and trustable. “I did a lot of coverage of Obama when he came to New England and so did other people," he said. "By having dozens citizens taking photos, shooting video and writing blog entries about it, there is so much more to read about what happened in that event that you could really get a true picture without the media filter of what happened. By reading so many different sources, the truth will raise to the top.”

Obama in NH 10/16/08 from stevegarfield on Vimeo.

Citizen journalism reveals local uncovered stories. The first time he took video of a fire in his neighborhood and e-mailed it to his neighbors, Garfield realized the important role citizen journalism plays in communities. He says his neighbors were really appreciative for the service he did. “I realized that even when I tell stories that are only important to just a few, local people, they are still important.” And these stories don’t usually get coverage from mainstream media. Dan Gillmor, director and founder of Center for Citizen Media, agrees with him. “Mainstream media should recognize that people in the communities know things that they don’t, and that they could be part of a broader conversation,” Gillmor says.

To watch Garfield's video of the fire, click here

Citizen journalism gets things done. When mainstream media cover a particular topic, it is common that the problem being exposed in the story gets a rapid solution or response by the people affected by the story. There are problems that affect a community, that are not “relevant” enough for mainstream media to cover, and that is when citizen journalism can make the difference. When Garfield found out that a lot of people had their absentee ballot returned because they did not have enough postage in it, he made a video saying that the election department did not provide the adequate information about it. He did not imagine the response he got. “The election department called me on the phone and they said ‘thanks for doing that, we are going to put the cost on the website’ and for the final election they were going to put a little slip of paper in every ballot that tells people it costs 59 cents. So I affected change by doing that whole thing, which made me feel really good.”

Massachusetts Absentee Ballot Envelope
Steve showing a Massachusetts Absentee Ballot Envelope


Despite the good experiences he had as citizen journalist, Garfield says it is still very difficult for citizen journalists to have a place in the media, neither as sources of news for traditional media outlets, nor as being considered members of the media by other organizations.

“The challenge for us, are entrenched organizations allowing citizens journalists who aren’t affiliated with a traditional media outlet to come in and film something,” says Garfield. He says Chuck Olsen’s recent experience confirms these difficulties. Olsen is a videoblogger and the cofounder of TheUpTake site. “There is a recount going on in Minnesota and the incumbent doesn’t allow Chuck to go into the press conference, but all the traditional media gets to go. They don’t say what distinguishes citizen journalists from traditional media, they are picking what press gets to go in, and so that is a challenge for us.”

Citizen journalists are obviously contributing in many ways to keep communities all around the world informed. So why do they still face these kind of obstacles?

A frequent argument is that citizen journalists are just not journalists. Should they be allowed to go into press conferences? “No, they should not” says Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur” a book that argues, among other things, that the Web 2.0. delivers useless information. “They call themselves citizen journalists, but they are not journalists. In the same way that someone that throws a lot of food into a pot is not a cook. They are just people who happen to have a camera. This is a profession that requires a particular kind of training, intelligence and skills.”

This is still one indisputable difference; journalists in mainstream media are professionals and make a living from journalism, while citizen journalists still have to rely on another income, since their work is more a contribution they do than a source of income. And Garfield is not the exception. Among many other paid jobs, he works for John Tobin, a Boston city councilor, running his website and taking his photos and video. Another controversy arises at this point. For ethical reasons, traditional journalists would not take money from a politician, even if they were not covering him or her directly.

So, does having other sources of income reflect on the ethics of citizen journalism? Tish Grier, a professional blogger and social media consultant, doesn’t think so. “Makes me think, does the person disclose what he/she does for a living on the citizen journalist’s site or in a LinkedIn/Facebook profile?" asks Grier. "Does the community know this person? Sometimes communities know people, and know their views, while the outside world doesn’t. So, when citizen journalist’s site is read by locals, they are fully aware of the citizen journalist’s potential bias, as they may well know a newspaper reporter’s potential bias.”


While the debate between traditional journalists, citizen journalists and the public opinion goes on, citizen journalism continues to spread and it is slowly becoming an important source for mainstream media. The most recent proof: the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the coverage made by citizen journalism.

The controversy doesn’t stop Garfield’s projects either. His plans for the future are more than ambitious; he wants to get involved with Hollywood to produce some behind the scenes packages of shows that he loves. And his work as citizen journalist is not put aside, he expects to keep participating in citizen journalism projects. “I hope that I can work on both the local, national and worldwide level to encourage existing media outlets to see the value of work with viewers.”

Adam Gaffin also believes that Garfield’s future is full of possibilities, especially in the current context print media is facing. “Steve is something of a pathfinder, showing how to use relatively simple tools to do some amazing storytelling," says Gaffin by e-mail. "I think you'll see more of that in mainstream media partly because they are looking for less expensive ways to tell stories (death spirals and all that), partly because people like Steve are turning out some stuff that's every bit as good as, if not better than, what full-time reporters can do.”

Here is the the video of "A day in Steve Garfield's life" by Belen Bogado


Steve Garfield said...

I could tell from my experience with you during the interview that you'd do a great job. You are a wonderful interviewer and a lot of fun.

Thanks for tellign my story.

Documentally said...

Great piece. Good work, all bases covered. :)