The full brutality and chaos of the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran was brought to the world’s attention through the photos and videos captured by the people caught in the middle of the uprising. While the mainstream media was locked out of Tehran as citizens took to the streets to protest an election they claimed was rigged, thousands of videos of the ensuing violence leaked beyond the country’s borders. A lone student leader carried more than 6,000 videos with him as he fled the country.
The protest movement has since become renowned as the beginning of citizen journalism, and the use of basic smartphone cameras to uncover what occurred on the streets a turning point in how the public interact with government and commercial organizations.
Today, every smartphone is a video conferencing platform, and anyone with an internet connection has at their disposal a powerful digital journalism tool.
Instant, Omnipresent Journalism
Video conferencing can open the world to professional and amateur journalists alike in two ways. Firstly, the smartphone and webcam technologies that make it possible are cheap and easy to acquire, simple to use, and small enough to be carried into, and operated, in the field by a single person. One journalist reporting from Syrian refugee camps was recently able to halve her luggage by recording her reports on an iPhone.
Secondly, the global penetration of the internet and the proliferation of free video conferencing apps like Skype mean reporter and interviewee need never leave their homes. With webcam links on either end, neither side must compromise their safety by changing their routine or entering hostile territory.
Smartphone journalism isn’t confined to war zones and repressive political regimes, either. Anyone can become a whistleblower just by filming what goes on around them—as evidenced by recent scandals involving Uber, FedEx, and United Airlines.
The ACLU has recently taken steps to protect this trend as a viable recourse for citizen journalists, and in many states, you can use their app to instantly secure videos if you feel that your phone may be confiscated. Investments such as this ensure that today’s easy access to video recording will continue to give more people, and therefore more points of view, access to media outlets.
Anyone Can Be a News Story
The mainstream TV media have quickly adopted video conferencing as a way of reaching into the everyday lives of people and getting their opinions on screen. The alternative nature of these connections gets dramatically highlighted when things get unintentionally domestic, such as when a young child interrupts a BBC News broadcast, or when the guest is unusually quirky.
In years past, such interviews would require the guest to trek into a professional TV studio or the news broadcast to send out a remote unit and all its cumbersome lights, cameras, and upheaval.
By leaving behind all of the traditional equipment and expense, grassroots news sources have been able to compete online for attention. The Young Turks can attract thousands to its live internet streaming news service, a freelance soccer reporter can stream live videos of interviews with players and coaches, and dozens of other independent sources can reach witnesses and commentators without a reliance on huge budgets.
That last point is the most important to the rise of video calling in digital journalism—both source and reporter can find each other without having to use mainstream channels.
Digital Journalism Tools
Improvements in smartphone video recording over recent years have made it possible to produce broadcast quality scenes from something that fits in your pocket. There are selfie sticks and tripods to hold the camera during an interview, external microphones to improve the reach and quality of audio recording, improved lighting including high dynamic range technology for dimly lit areas, multiple camera lenses for richer detail, and editing programs for putting the final touches on pre-recorded video.
The result is a one-person camera crew who can travel lightly and inconspicuously. By using a video conferencing platform, the live conversation between journalist and source can be relayed to a real-time stream or broadcast, and/or remote reporters, experts, or other witnesses can join in a group video chat.
Alternatively, a remote reporter can conduct a live interview with a source at the scene of an event, or a source that needs to remain in an undisclosed location—it’s safe enough that Edward Snowden was able to remotely attend a Hollywood press conference without giving away his exact address.
Provided sufficient broadband bandwidth is available, and many governments have the ability to constrict internet services, any two people who can find each other online can speak face-to-face. All this technology serves the very practical purpose of building trust between source and journalist, and video calling is far better at that than email and audio-only conversation.
With the reach of the internet, the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation, and the bonus of being able to transfer files, share screens, and create a live broadcast of unfolding events, video conferencing is set to become the most important digital journalism tool of the next 20 years.