Did London bombings turn citizen journalists into citizen paparazzi?

July 7, 2005, was one of the darkest days for London, as terrorists blew up three underground trains and a double-decker bus, killing scores and injuring hundreds. But out of that darkness came an unusual light, the flickering light from survivors such as Adam Stacey and Ellis Leeper as they shot the scene underground using cameraphones and videophones.

Like the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, the first reports came from people at the scene who had videocameras. [See related OJR stories by Mark Glaser and Shefali Srinivas.] In this case, the cameras were smaller and built into phones. But despite the day being a major breakthrough for citizen media — from Wikipedia’s collective entry to group blogs such as Londonist’s hour-by-hour rundown — it also brought out the worst in some bystanders.

A London blogger who identifies himself only as Justin and blogs at Pfff.co.uk, told his story of surviving the bombing on the train that exploded near Edgware Road. His harrowing account includes this scene as he finally comes out of the underground tunnel and into the fresh air: “The victims were being triaged at the station entrance by Tube staff and as I could see little more I could do so I got out of the way and left,” he wrote. “As I stepped out people with cameraphones vied to try and take pictures of the worst victims. In crisis some people are cruel.”

The next day, Justin reflected a bit more on the people outside who were trying to photograph the victims.

“These people were passers-by trying to look into the station,” Justin wrote. “They had no access, but could have done well to clear the area rather than clog it. The people on the train weren’t all trying to take pictures, we were shocked, dirty and helping each other. People were stunned, but okay. The majority of the train was okay as I walked from my carriage (the last intact one) down through the train I saw no injuries or damage to the remaining four or so carriages. Just people dirty and in shock. The other direction wasn’t so pretty, but you don’t need an account of this and what I saw, watching TV is enough.”

While citizen media efforts became another big story, quickly picked up by the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, among many others, Justin was not so quick to exploit his story. In fact, his first impulse was not to watch any news accounts and not to give interviews to media outlets that wanted to glorify his situation.

I left a comment for him on his blog, asking him if he realized that all the people with cameraphones that day were helping to tell the story to the world. Was there a way they could tell that story in a more sensitive way?

“The news does hold a role and it’s important for people to understand, comprehend and learn,” Justin replied to me in another blog comment. “To ensure they’re safe, systems and procedures change, that the world ultimately gets better. I don’t even hold contempt really for the cameraphone people, but you must appreciate something else — were those people taking photos helping or were those people shocking the world? I’ve alluded to seeing [gruesome] things in the tunnel and carriage, but I’ve not documented them in any detail. I feel it is inappropriate and does not contribute to fact and information.”

So far, gruesome images from the attacks haven’t been widely distributed online or given a prominent place in Western media. That contrasts sharply with the response in the Spanish media after the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, when bloody photos were on TV and in newspapers, according to a Reuters story.

The best and worst in all of us

In fact, online news sources were at the top of their game on July 7 and beyond. The BBC Web site experienced its most trafficked day ever on July 7 and was inundated with eyewitness accounts from readers — 20,000 e-mails, 1,000 photos and 20 videos in 24 hours, according to editor and acting head of BBC News Interactive Pete Clifton.

“It certainly did feel like a step-change [on July 7],” Clifton told me via e-mail. “We often get pictures from our readers, but never as many as this, and the quality was very high. And because people were on the scenes, they were obviously better than anything news agencies could offer. A picture of the bus, for example, was the main picture on our front page for much of the day.”

The BBC and Guardian both had reporters’ blogs that were updated as events unfolded, and group blogs such as BoingBoing and Londonist became instant aggregators of online information.

More surprising was the importance of alternative news sources such as Wikipedia and its useful entry created by volunteer hordes and the inundation of images on Flickr. Even across the pond, MSNBC.com experienced double its usual weekday traffic on July 7, with 10.2 million unique users, and set a record with 4.4 million users of streaming video that day.

Interestingly, both the BBC and MSNBC.com gave particular citizen journalists who survived a bit more room to tell their story on instant diaries set up for the occasion. The diarist on the BBC, a woman who would only identify herself as Rachel (previously just “R”), was not totally thrilled about becoming a media sensation herself.

“More journos phoned yesterday,” Rachel wrote in one post. “I must have given my mobile to the stringer who was asking questions when I was wandering outside the hospital getting fresh air after being stitched still in shock. The Mail on Sunday and Metro wanted to send a photographer round! I said no way. I said I felt it was important to get witness statements out at the time as I was there and felt relatively untraumatized so I’d rather they spoke to me than shoved their mikes and cameras in the faces of those who were shell-shocked or more injured. Having done that I really do not want any more fuss. … I was incredibly lucky but I have no desire to become a ‘Blast Survivor Girlie’ one week on.”

That naked impulse to tell a disaster story, glaring kleig lights and all, was once the province of mainstream and tabloid news organizations. But no longer. Now, for better and worse, our fellow citizens stand by, cameraphones in pockets, ready to photograph us in our direst times. Xeni Jardin, a freelance technology journalist and co-editor of BoingBoing, was aghast at the behavior of the citizen paparazzi at the scene described by Justin.

“It’s like the behavior when you see with a car wreck on the highway,” Jardin told me. “People stop and gawk. There’s a sense that this is some sort of animal behavior that’s not entirely compassionate or responsible. The difference here is that people are gawking with this intermediary device. I’m not sure if the people who did this were saying ‘I’ve got to blog this and get it to the BBC!’ But when everyone is carrying around these devices and we get used to this intuitive response of just snapping what we see that’s of interest — as surreal and grotesque as that scenario sounds, I imagine we will see a lot more of that.”

Jardin compared the behavior to the paparazzi that chased Princess Diana before her fatal car crash and noted that the ethical issues raised then are now applicable beyond just professional photographers.

“These are ethical issues that we once thought only applied to a certain class of people who had adopted the role of news as a profession,” Jardin said. “Now that more of us have the ability to capture and disseminate evidence or documentation of history as a matter of course, as a matter of our daily lives — as a casual gesture that takes very little time, no money, not a lot of skill — those ethical issues become considerations for all of us.”

Society under surveillance

Citizen paparazzi is not really a new concept, and the proliferation of cameras has continued unabated since the first point-and-shoot 35mm cameras took off right through cheap digital cameras. But while a few amateur photos might have made it into print magazines in the past, now the Internet is awash in photos and video taken by amateurs. As the term citizen journalist becomes part of mainstream thought — spurred on by Big Media outlets and startups — what role do these outlets play in spurring or reining in paparazzi behavior?

Dan Gillmor, founder of citizen media site Bayosphere, wrote in his landmark book “We the Media” about the proliferation of cameras in public spaces. “We are a society of voyeurs and exhibitionists,” he wrote. “We can argue whether this is repugnant, but when secrets become far more difficult to keep, something fundamental will have changed. Imagine Rodney King and Abu Ghraib times a million. … Everyone who works, or moves around, in a public place should consider whether they like the idea of all their movements being recorded by nosy neighbors.”

When I talked to Gillmor about the citizen paparazzi at the London bombing sites, he said he hoped that societies will eventually develop a zone of privacy for people in public places — but realistically didn’t think it would happen.

“The line between an obviously important public event like what happened last week and public voyeurism is unclear,” Gillmor said. “It’s probable that there are pictures from last week floating around that are far too gruesome for any news organization to ever go near it. … In the end, we’re going to have to develop new cultural norms, and I hope at some level that the more we wipe out the notion of privacy in a public space, the more I hope we end up with a kind of unwritten Golden Rule about privacy in public spaces and give people some space. I doubt it, but I hope people start to think about it.”

Counterbalancing that was Gillmor’s journalistic instinct, which said that news is news and is fair game for citizen journalists. “In a catastrophe, that’s news, and I’m not going to tell people not to take photos of historic events,” he said.

Jeff Jarvis, outspoken blogger at Buzzmachine and former president of Advance.net, trusts that normal folks using cameras will be more polite than paparazzi.

“The more I think about it, the more I do believe that most people will be more polite than paparazzi because they aren’t motivated to get the picture no one else has to make a buck,” Jarvis said via e-mail. “More reporters is merely more of what we have now. And believing in the value of news and reporting openness I think we need to see this as good. Are citizen journalists rude? Are professional journalists? Same question. Same answer.”

Citizen journalism efforts are slowly coming out of beta, though there’s room for more maturation in the relationship between contributors and media outlets. Andrew Locke, director of product strategy at MSNBC.com, said that his site made every effort to contact citizen journalists and pulled down contributions that didn’t sit right with the editorial team.

“Jeanne Rothermich, who leads our small CJ team, has put a great deal of emphasis on fostering dialogue and partnership with individual citizen reporters,” Locke told me. “We not only get more accurate information, but richer, more detailed accounts that we can share with the larger audience.”

The advantage of the media sites over unmediated sources such as Flickr is that they can use the wisdom of photo and editorial staff to vet contributions and filter out insensitive or invalid material. But Locke says the next step for citizen media is more than just mentoring contributors.

“Over time, we want to turn those passing relationships into lasting bonds [with citizen journalists],” Locke said. “Once you have a real, ongoing relationship, then you can start sharing information and wisdom back and forth. You can develop a code of conduct that means something and can stick. It’s not simply about us mentoring citizen journalists like cub reporters, it’s about the community itself developing norms and standards of propriety. Yes, we’ll always act as a gatekeeper, but once you’re in the gate as a citizen journalist, you should be an empowered member of the storytelling community. We still have a long way to go, but for citizen journalism to grow to its full potential we have to get there.”

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. bright young says:

    it’s new these days after london bombings. i will try to study it.what sides should i consider in when i make my study on citizen journalists or citizen paparazzi?
    thank you for your coming advice!

  2. I agree with the point that Locke makes about citizen journalism still having a way to go before its full potential becomes apparent.

    We need to remember that what took place in London last week was the first time that many of these ad-hoc citizen journalists had been given an opportunity to snap away at things other than mom, dad and spot and therefore a natural inclination to capture the most gruesome detail was a given.

    As citizen journalism breaks more boundaries and plays an even greater role in collective culture, so too will certain social and ethical responsibilities which had previously only been adhered to by trained media practitioners.

    The legacy of capturing gruesome scenes purely for sensationalism will soon begin to fall away as experience, training and accuracy become more entrenched principles in citizen journalists.

  3. Mark, once again you really cover a story well and get the necessary quotes. And once again, you quote Jarvis… which is only good, because I hope people can see how poor his argument is. He leads the media-baiters school, which firmly believes that journalism is corrupted by professionalism, and thus anyone doing it for free has more noble intentions. I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

    Xeni Jardin’s input is much more valuable here. If blogs do one thing good, it’s bringing people up to journalistic conventions (rather than bringing everyone down to USENET-quality bosts). That’s a positive step; I don’t know how much it would translate yet into the activities of citizen phone-o-journalists, but it may guide the popular participatory media sites. Granted, BoingBoing itself was criticized strongly back in April that it had strayed from its own standards that readers had come to expect.


  4. Citizens take photos of what they see, but not just what they see on the street, they take photos in way they see them in the news. My point is that if they every single day on TV, in newspapers and on internet are watching photos with blood or disaster photos it is logically to expect from them to make such photos. In fact they are not completely aware of what are they photographing, it is a reflection of how they are percept the media, or how the media would like to be seen