CNN viewers were greeted Thursday with video footage of bent metal and broken glass from a bombed-out London train. The images' source: a video camera phone, a first for the news network.
Meanwhile, amateur pictures of the bombing began popping up on Flickr.com, a photo swapping Web site, at the same time mainstream news outlets were announcing the attack.
Welcome to the world of citizen news gathering, where technology and the age-old desire to communicate hot information, be it hard news or soft gossip, are converging and forcing traditional news organizations to dramatically change the way they cover big news events.
Reporting by the public got a big push from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has gathered steam as camera phones have become more ubiquitous, blogs have multiplied and mainstream media outlets have gotten more Web-savvy.
"Sept. 11 marked an important date in the history of how people got information when a major news event happened," said Rich Gordon, director of the new media program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
More people sought--and shared--information on the Internet. Do-it-yourself journalism became more popular on the Web, while Americans coped with the crisis by posting their own reactions and reading those of others on mainstream and non-traditional media sites.
"Four years later, there are even more sources [of information] and even more familiarity with the variety of sources that exist," Gordon said. "And in that four-year time period, there has been an explosion of media production tools in the hands of people."
One of those tools is the rise of Web logs, or blogs, which are Web sites where people can post opinions, pictures and links to other sites.
Software developments in the past few years have made it easier to create Web sites or post pictures on existing sites, Gordon said.
Flickr was launched in early 2004 and was purchased by Internet colossus Yahoo earlier this year. Users can share photos on many subjects, and big news often drives a surge in postings. When a giant tsunami washed through South Asia in December, killing tens of thousands of people, Flickr was inundated with thousands of pictures, said Caterina Fake, a Flickr co-founder.
The first pictures from London were posted on Flickr at the same time workers at its California data center were hearing about the bombings through the mainstream media, Fake said. Within 14 hours of the blasts, there were more than 450 pictures posted.
Five shots came from James Cridland, including one that shows ambulances outside the King's Cross subway station, one of the bombing sites. At least three British blogs picked up the picture from Flickr.
Cridland, head of new media for Virgin Radio in London, normally commutes on the subway. But Thursday he biked to his office, stopping when he noticed a crowd of police near the tube station.
"I took a couple of snaps on the off chance it was something exciting," Cridland said in an e-mail. When he got to work, he posted his pictures.
He's what Scott Shamp, director of the University of Georgia's New Media Institute, would call a new sort of "embedded reporter." Cridland's turf is just about anything and everything in the world around him.
These reporters' tools include digital cameras, which run about $100 for low-end models and are now widely affordable. And more than ever, it's been the camera phone.
It was a novelty in 2001, making up a sliver of all cell phone sales. Nowadays, at least 75 percent of all phones shipped by wireless phone giant Motorola Inc. are equipped with cameras.
"The world of these mobile communications devices has so radically changed," Shamp said. Just a few years ago, "who would've carried a camera with them on a daily basis?"
Video cell phones are the next wave in wireless hardware. CNN used a cell phone clip for the first time Thursday to cover a major news event, said Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S. The clip was originally obtained by Britain's Sky TV, which made it available to all news organizations, he said. "We've run it several times through the day."
The pictures taken by the new breed of accidental photojournalist are different than those taken by professional news photographers. That's partly because they're simply not as skilled as pros, but it's also because "this is a medium of raw emotion," Shamp said.
Major media organizations are increasingly reaching out to such citizen journalists.
After Thursday's bombing, the Web site of Britain's Guardian newspaper had links to Flickr galleries and blogs featuring first-person accounts. The BBC's site had a prominent posting to readers: "We want your pictures." Below was "Eyewitness Accounts," a link to bombing pictures sent in.
"Mainstream media are coming to realize they are not islands anymore," said Northwestern's Gordon. "If they want to be a place where people turn to for information, they need to point people to other sources, even if it's information they didn't gather."
Conversely, amateur picture-takers appear to be keeping a keen eye on video pros, judging by the Flickr site Thursday. Several photos on the site's bombing gallery were of TV screens, including CNN, beaming out news of the event.
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