Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hey, officer, we’re watching you

You've heard all about it by now. Early in the morning on New Year's Day, police in Oakland, California, had a man down on his belly on a BART platform -- a suspect in a fight with other passengers. Suddenly, in full view of other holiday revelers traveling home, Officer Johannes Mehserle draws his pistol and shoots 22-year-old Oscar Grant III in the back. Camera-equipped cell phones on the scene captured the incident as it happened, putting the telling of the tale on YouTube and beyond the power of official spin.

Oakland broke out in rioting as a result, and we have yet to see the last of the fallout. That's happened in the past in the aftermath of apparent police misconduct, whether negligent or malicious (we don't yet know in this case). But rarely, if ever, before has the public been so motivated by a story driven less by professional media reports than by raw footage taken and distributed by citizens bypassing formal channels.

Fast as the media was to respond, it relied on the amateur video captured at the scene --and even professional reports were then edited and repurposed by citizen journalists dedicated to telling their own version of the tale. When speaking to the jaded pros, police spokespeople have found themselves chasing a story driven by grassroots outrage -- one that couldn't be put to rest by stroking a few familiar faces.

Citizen journalism is coming into its own. Video cameras, cell-phone camers, PDAs and the Internet are handing tools to regular people that allow them to communicate and distribute information as never before. The stories they tell are often unpolished, but they're real, they can tell unpleasant truths, and they can reach vast audiences in unfiltered form.

Authorities are starting to clue in -- and to respond in ham-handed form. After Grant was shot, police tried to confiscate cell phones on the scene that had recorded the incident. But almost everybody has a cell phone these days. They're small, and easy to conceal. The revolution in journalism can't bring back the dead. But it can help to ensure that the guilty are held accountable and that the truth is widely known.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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