How Mobile News Gathering Changed the Mainstream Media in 2011

Libyan dictator Col. Muamarr Ghaddafi is seen being brutally beaten while multiple cell phones and cameras capture the event – Image grab: courtesy YouTube

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Though many tech analysts have dubbed 2011 as the year social media finally came of age, it might as well have been the year that mobile video, images, and texts turned global media outlets upside-down.

In short: 2011 was also the year that mobile news gathering came of age.

From the regime-changing riots of the Arab Spring, to the landmark Occupy Wallstreet protests, to the illicit cell phone hacks at Ruper Murdoch’s ‘News of the World,’ information gathered from mobile devices in 2011 created the year’s biggest news. Driving the trend is a global increase in cell phone manufacturing and the advent of better mobile technology, including better video and still imaging capabilities.

According to the UK Guardian, “Cameraphones have entered the mainstream of photojournalism with a huge rise in the number of images published by the media this year due to a combination of the Arab uprisings, the Occupy protests and improved mobile technology. (1)”

Perhaps the best example of this recent mobile ascendancy is the grisly execution of Libyan Dictator Moammar Gaddafi now seen by millions around the world thanks to several Libyan rebels with mobile phones who captured the event.

In fact, millions of YouTube viewers have now clicked and watched as the country’s former dictator was brutally beaten, sodomized with a stick, and finally executed by opposition forces in his hometown of Sirte, on October 23, 2011.

The truly shocking part: more than 1.6 million unique viewers have watched the most popular YouTube video alone, driving the total views of the event into the tens of millions in just four months. Those numbers are comparable to a prime-time network news magazine like NBC’s Rock Center (2) .

Reueters correspondent Tom Heneghan reports the shocking images of Gaddafi’s “dramatic end” represent a type of absolute assurance for Libyans, who at the time of the dictator’s death, were caught in a swirl of rumors (3).

Heneghan goes on to say that because of the prolific use of mobile imaging, more editors are now publishing previously-verboten images simply because they are increasing in availability and popularity:

“Showing images of a person in the throes of death used to be a newsroom taboo, but even this is now giving way under the pressure of instant internet publishing and — thanks to camera phones — the increasing availablility of strong news footage.”

Yet while some might shrink from this gory realism of this particular story, others might simply ask: Why the specific rise of mobile devices in 2011? Recent statistics say that answer is simply because a growing majority of mobile device users are finally able to use mobile tools to capture major world news events as they happen.

According to Microsoft Tag, a whopping 80 percent (around 5 billion) of the world’s population now owns a mobile phone of which 1.08 billion (about one fifth) are classified as image-recording ‘smartphones’ with SMS and internet connectivity (4).

Those same numbers show that 3.05 billion of the world’s mobile devices now feature simple SMS (text and picture messaging) capabilities, which means only about 950 million (another fifth) lack any sort of advanced data collection capability.

Nielsen statisitcs show that Within the past year in the United States more users (for the first time) purchased smartphones than so called ‘feature’ phones with simple SMS capability (5).

What that means is that a growing number of the world’s market share of mobile devices now feature an advanced digital toolbox, including the ability to stream live video, text still images, record audio clips, and mark events with GIS mapping data such as date, time, temperature, and GPS coordinates.

In short, for the cost of just a few hundred dollars, millions of global consumers now have a hand-held device capable of recording and transmitting an amazing amount of detailed information that, just a few years ago, would have required a three-person, network news team equipped with a microwave or satellite broadcast truck (6).

Seen here is the TVU Networks Mobile Newsgathering TV Pack. The company claims that over 100 network stations have “deployed” it.

Yet despite the overwhelming technical advantages of this trend, you might question the quality and news value of mobile news gathering data.

After all, it’s easy to think up plenty of criticisms. For instance, what are the odds that someone will press the ‘video record’ button on his or her smartphone during a truly relevant news event? How to tell if the data is staged or fake? What prevents bias in citizen journalist coverage? The list goes on.

In short, it becomes very easy to ask: Why does Mobile News Gathering Matter? I believe the answer comes from a relatively simple statistics problem showing favorable odds.

Whereas in most media markets just a few expensive HD news cameras are available to capture major breaking news, it’s now higly likely that dozens (sometimes hundreds) of mobile phones are already snapping pictures, sending texts, and scooping up quality video footage before the network vans arrive.

Reporting for the industry blog “Big Journalism,” veteran writer Lawerence Meyers says when this “power” is taken from the clutches of corporate media, it quickly leads to greater truth in the hands of the citizen journalist. Meyers goes on to say:

“While traditional media has abandoned its responsibility and ethics to report unbiased news, citizen journalists have taken over the blogosphere and taken their cameras to the streets to find truth.”

Like Meyers, I believe mobile news gathering has the ability to deliver the type of immediacy, relevancy, and multiple viewpoints that expensive network cameras just can’t replicate.

Works Cited

(1) Cameraphones capture the images of the year – in pictures. 29 December 2011. The Guardian

(2) Hibberd, James. ‘Rock Center with Brian Williams’ not helped by new night. 9 Feb 2012. Inside TV

(3) Heneghan, Tom. Shock Image Threshold Falls Under Internet Pressure. 21 Oct 2011. Reuters.

(4) Richmond, HOlly. The Growth of Mobile Marketing and Tagging. 21 Mar. 2011 Microsoft Tag Website

(5) More US Consumers Choosing SmartPhones as Apple Closes the Gap on Android. 18 Jan. 2012. Nielsen Wire.

(6) TVU Networks Adds Full HD Capability to its TVUPack Mobile News Gathering Backpack. 10 NOv. 2010. TVU Networks Website.

(7) Meyers, Lawerence. Citizen Journalism is WOrking. 16 June 2011. Andrew Breitbart Presents Big Journalism.