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Janensch on the Media: Eywitnesses to Terror
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The first reports about the terror assault in Mumbai, India, came by cell phone and over the Internet from non-journalists before the professionals were on the scene.  Media commentator Paul Janensch salutes the enterprising amateurs but also offers a word of caution.

The attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel and other targets in Mumbai provided the latest example of how the new communications technology is turning eyewitnesses into news reporters.  People on the ground transmitted dramatic text messages and images by cell phone and keyboard to Internet sites such as Twitter and Flickr.  

Twitter is a free social-networking service on which you can post brief messages.  It has more than six million members worldwide.  At one point, Twitter was receiving 80 first-hand accounts of the violence every five seconds.  Flickr – that’s F-L-I-C-K-R, without an E – allows you to post photographs and video clips.  A stream of photographs on Flickr from a contributor named “Vinu” showed ravaged streets and stunned bystanders.

Blogs – or web logs – on the Internet were posted by victims hiding from the terrorists.  The transmissions that came out of the stricken city formerly known as Bombay were picked up by television, radio and print news outlets around the world while the professional journalists were still trying to get there.  The new communications technology was more than a transmitter of news.  Twitter relayed pleas from hospitals for blood donors.  Indian students in the U.S. used the Facebook social network to communicate with family back home.  A spreadsheet on Google listed the names of the dead and injured.   

I was reminded of the cell phone video shot by a student during the massacre at Virginia Tech.  I also thought about the words and images sent by brave individuals who observed the suppression of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar.   This “citizen journalism,” as many call it, or “eyewitness reporting,” a label I prefer, is a welcome addition to the work of experienced journalists.  

But there is a risk that so much information coming from so many unproven providers can include wild rumors and serious errors.  For example, a message on Twitter said the Indian government was demanding that updates about police and military operations be stopped.  The message was traced not to Indian officials, but to a high-school junior in Boston.  

Warning!  Some of what we get via the new communications technology is not from people who know what they’re talking about.  It’s just bunk.

Media commentator Paul Janensch is a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.  You can read his column this Sunday in the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport.