Crowdsourcing is good -- but not enough

The rise in citizen journalism around the world has vastly extended our eyes and ears. But journalism is still crucial to derive meaning.

A woman in Jakarta, Indonesia, took a cellphone photo at a rally for ‘Sharia’ law last year.

When was the last time you hung a Nikon around your neck or hefted a video camera to your chin?

Unless you are a card-carrying photojournalist or an avid hobbyist, you probably reach for your cellphone and let the camera app do the job on a day-to-day basis.

Not all of the estimated 5 billion cellphones in the world have cameras or can connect to the Internet, but huge numbers can. The image above from a rally in Indonesia is a fairly common sight. Anyone can capture a moment, which means anyone can be a reporter.

And with e-mail, Twitter, blogs, and instant messaging, everyone can be a publisher. That’s good, even if it means that old-line media companies, including this one, are going through profound disruption as a result. There are now millions of citizen journalists. They have shown us tsunamis and tornadoes, street protests and police brutality. We have unprecedented visibility, especially in parts of the world where the state used to control everything that was seen and heard.

At one point in Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play “Night and Day,” a photojournalist in Africa notes how important it is to be able to see into dark places. “People do awful things to each other. But it is worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.”

More information is always better than less. Does that mean we have more understanding? Here is a then-and-now example of what I mean: In 1982, I was reporting from the Middle East for the Monitor. Early in the year, travelers from Syria were whispering the word “Hama.” A rebellious city had been surrounded by the army of Hafez al-Assad and was being shelled into submission. The Assad government controlled every aspect of news. No one could see what was happening in Hama.

Working with sources in Jordan and speaking with diplomats in Damascus, other journalists and I pieced together a word picture of the siege. “It was like somebody’s idea of medieval warfare,” one diplomat noted. But to this day, no images have emerged to document what some have estimated was the killing of as many as 20,000 people by Mr. Assad’s soldiers.

In recent weeks, history seems to have been repeating itself with an uprising in the Syrian city of Deraa. Assad’s son, Bashar, has sent his army to crush the rebellion. This time, however, images are emerging from camera phones. We see people running, gunfire, bodies in the street. But where and when did that happen? What happened before and after?

We know more about Syria than we did 29 years ago. That is progress. But images need explanation. Facts can be misreported and misinterpreted. Establishing accuracy is fundamental to understanding the world.

Millions of people are feeding information into the Internet every day. Some is accurate. Some is bogus. Much is uncoupled from meaning. As important as crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism are, a free and reliable press is essential in establishing what information means. The Monitor, from its birth in 1908, has tried to do this. Hundreds of other news organizations do as well.

Speaking on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (May 3), Irina Bokova, head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, applauded the explosion of citizen journalism, which she said has had a powerful influence on the democracy movements sweeping the world. But professional journalism is still needed, she noted, to systematically and carefully develop facts and root out corruption. “I don’t believe,” she said, “that by some miracle citizen journalism will replace professional journalism.”

Citizen and professional journalists are powerful together. We are getting more light than ever. But we need to know what we are seeing.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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