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The growth of citizen journalism since the Rodney King video 20 years ago

By David Silverberg
Posted Mar 3, 2011 in Internet
Twenty years ago today, the world saw the first major act of citizen journalism: George Holliday filming the beating of Rodney King with a Sony HandyCam. It was a shaky video but its consequences rippled worldwide. Not only did the video and subsequent trial spark the L.A. riots, but citizen media became a global phenomenon found in almost every country, in some form.
The King video anniversary got me thinking about how citizen journalism has adapted to the digital age, and what that means for user-generated content.
Holliday demonstrated what we have seen in many Middle East countries: an urge to document a act of violence so searing he was compelled to film it. Without his video, would L.A. Police have faced that storm of criticism? Similarly, if video wasn't shot of an Iranian woman killed in protests, would the world see the extent of the massacre? Those videos put a human face on a faraway problem.
Today, distribution channels are more intuitive and user-friendly. Holliday chose to sell his footage to CNN, receiving $500 in payment, but today Holliday could've sold non-exclusive rights to the footage, garnering more money from various outlets, both mainstream and alternative.
Then again, modern-day Hollidays bypass media stalwarts altogether and host their vids on YouTube or Vimeo channels, or send material to alt sources such as LiveLeak or Gawker. The rise of diverse channel gives the citizen journalism a wide array of distribution choices, depending on the targeted demographic. It's a reporter's market, in a way.
Also, look at how a citizen journalist's technology has evolved. Forget HandyCams; now your iPhone can shoot relatively decent video and photos, and you can instantly spread your message from a smartphone (e.g. you can write an article on via our mobile site). Smartphones also let citizen journos access social media with one click; imagine if Holliday had access to Twitter 20 years ago, and how quickly that Rodney King video would have spread on viral media worldwide.
Most importantly, citizen media is beginning to gain respect. It's not just a hobbyist fancy anymore. Citizen journalism has broken important stories and provided context to stories often reported on from a distance. The filter of an editor saying this or that can't appear on the front page is diminishing, and readers are gradually accepting the fact that while citizen media isn't always 100% correct, it's raw footage of an immediate event. The content can be overwhelming but readers have become more discerning and analytical in the material they come across.
Tonight, let's remember how Holliday disrupted the media landscape and let's clink glasses to another 20 years of powerful citizen journalism.

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