Death of a citizen reporter and the place of of the activist-journalist

Last week, Kenyatta Cheese shared some thoughts on the murder of Indymedia journalist Brad Wills. He asked some questions about the place of activist-journalists in this new world of citizen’s media. He called the shooting

probably the first death of a citizen journalist during the era of citizen journalism, though I doubt it will be blogged as such. Indymedia reporters tend to be thought of as independent journalists and not citizens for some reason. While both are unpaid and non-professional, Indymedia wears their politics on their sleeve. While this is polarizing to some, their passion and faith also keeps them sustainable (at least more so than the prospects of a free t-shirt) — something we need to learn from. Meanwhile, citizen-J efforts remain mostly incidental journalism, more ready to fulfill the promise of urban sensing systems than the tenets of civic journalism.

We participatory media heads need to think about Brad Will and what his story means for our own immediate communities. While our peers are more likely to face a Apple vs. Bloggers lawsuit than the threat of physical harm, it doesn’t absolve us from at least thinking about the social (and dare I say moral?) responsibility we have to prepare our users within reason.

Kenyatta identifies something that oft goes unmentioned: indymedia makers and other activist journalists are often seen as the obnoxious uncle that no one wants to get to close to during the holidays.

In that light, initially I didn’t note much “mainstream citizen-journalism” coverage of Will’s death. Looking around, I found mentions by Romenesko, boing boing, and media bistro, but most of the blogging about the murder was done by ideological fellow travelers, including Al Giordano at Narco News. Jeff Jarvis mentioned Will’s death; in the comments, Andy Carvin points to the memorial blog Brad Will: Presente. But Zulma Aguiar has been covering Will’s death as thoroughly as anyone; she points to Will’s final video work, which apparently (I have not watched it) ends with his shooting. NYC Indymedia just posted a statement from Will’s family.

In recent years, the only times I recall looking at indymedia.org have been to find protest news; even then I often don’t learn much. Indymedia was the first Internet-driven citizen journalism movement that I found. Its volunteer reporters were an important source of news during the era of “anti-globalization” protests in the halcyon late-90s before September 11th. “Don’t hate the media, become the media,” a phrase popularized, if not coined, by Indymedia in Seattle c. 19989 [thanks, dee dee, for the correction] is still germane, if not fully embraced by media ownership critics. Indymedia’s experiment in de-centralized journalism and collective editing were important, if ultimately failed, experiments in that set the stage for later projects.

7 thoughts on “Death of a citizen reporter and the place of of the activist-journalist

  1. Brad’s death was marked at the Newsxchange conference this year – the annual gathering of major news broadcasters – at the end of their debate about journalists safety.

    I’m not sure this is about citizen journalists as opposed to freelance journalists (there is a difference). It’s simply about the murder of someone recording news — of which there are far too many..

  2. thanks, Zulma and Richard. Dee Dee is certainly an innovator, I’m glad to fine her blog. Richard, I agree with you Will’s death is
    about more than citizen journalism, I just wonder if the role of the “propaganda journalist,” those telling stories from specific points of view, is growing.

  3. Curious to call indymedia “ultimately…failed”. Failed whom? Perhaps that is a function of the status of your local chapter. Chicago? Dunno. But for literally hundreds of thousands of people world wide, the indymedia sites are crucial sources of information–an alternative to corporate and state propaganda.
    I was in South Africa for three months at the beginning of the year and in that country indymedia has meant a way that widespread communities can communicate: Cape Town, J’burg and Durban movements have used indymedia to create a national presense for shackdwellers rights, anti water and electricity privatization. In Latin America, Uruguay, Ecuador, Argentina etc, indymedia has tens of thousands of readers every day. I listen to APPO, the Oaxaca radio station every night. (www.chiapas.indymedia.org) Many radio stations throughout the world have rebroadcast this stream.
    In all the hype about “you tube” and “my space” there is little acknowledgement of the pioneering work of indymedia in video and audio posting. I guess this is only important when it promotes “My” and “you” and not “our”. Since there are so many decentralized servers maintaining the network, it is difficult to actually assess the traffic, but I would guess that if one were able to count that indymedia would rival or surpass those trendy networks. Certainly it is more diverse both ethnically and in terms of class. It is not only available to those with PCs. There is no other network that is so often “republished” in local papers, “restreamed” on local radio stations. One of my favorite areas is the way that indymedia graphics have been printed and made into instant photo and graphic exhibits. See one on my blog: http://www.deedeehalleck.blogspot.com

  4. Please excuse me if I misread that last reply but anyone who thinks traffic on indymedia.org websites “rivals or surpasses” you tube and my space is either extremely uninformed or completely out of their mind.

  5. dee dee, thanks for your message.

    I think you misread my inartful last sentence. I don’t say Indymedia has failed—indeed, I’m not sure how one would determine that, its very creation was an important moment in the history of the internet. I wrote that its “experiment in de-centralized journalism and collective editing were important, if ultimately failed, experiments in [sic] that set the stage for later projects.”

    I glommed onto Kenyatta’s post because I rarely see Indymedia given the credit it deserves as an innovator that presaged the rise of citizen journalism. Part of the reason, I’d argue, is that, like other alternative media projects of the Left, it is generally less concerned with questions of audience than it is with propagating its own set of views. Second, I can think of few instances of Indymedia breaking stories. It was the movement’s wire service during the “anti-globalization” era that reached its apex between the 1998 Seattle protests and September 11. Along with media critics of the right, it was successful in questioning the efficacy of objectivity in journalism. However, and maybe this is asking too much of a volunteer effort, it never successfully modeled new ways of reporting or editing as a group, at least not in ways that have been identified or acknowledged by later amateur journalism efforts. Further, although I must be missing some, I can recall no non-protest-related news stories that it broke.

    Kenyatta’s post also resonated because of an experience earlier this fall in a classroom discussion of internet media. The history of Indymedia was part of the day’s reading. The students in this class at a major university regarded as a liberal bastion included Ph.d students and faculty members, several of whom had never heard of Indymedia. I was fascinated to hear a historical review of what was to most of them an bygone era. I shan’t speak for the class participants, but several students made the case that Indymedia is an oft-useful propaganda effort, but not a journalistic operation. If there’s a failure, it is the prevalence of that perception.

  6. You are seeing indymedia as a competitor to CNN, or Google News. Just the words you use, such as “breaking” story or “audience”. That was never a goal of indymedia: to go mano a mano with mainstream corporate news. Then you say that you may be “missing some”. Of course you will always miss a lot. Indymedia is huge! Even if you spent a week brousing you would not see even a one thousanth of it! In photos alone, it has been estimated that there are over 10 million photos posted! If you do even a cursory brouse you will see that for most locations, indymedia is way beyond protests and “propaganda operations”. Maybe you are only looking at the global site. There are 200 others! Check out the South Africa site. To even use the word “breaking” — as if the stories would first appear on indymedia and then be printed elsewhere. Most of the stories on South Africa indymedia are NEVER published anywhere else. And they are stories that effect hundreds of thousands of people. Or Chiapas, or Estrechos. These are sites that post news that is only available on those sites.

    So your grad students didn’t know about it. Well, if they lived in a shack in South Africa, they would know about South Africa indymedia. If they were fighting for water rights in Bolivia, they would know where to get information. I’m not surprised that students in our country don’t know about indymedia, or about Malachi Richter or about water privatization.
    Indymedia is still an ON-GOING important experiment in decentralized journalism and collective editing! How does that get called “ultimately failed”??? By the way, the Seattle WTO protests started in 1999 not 1998 as you state. Indymedia began when several groups, including Deep Dish, Peper Tiger, Freespeech TV and many San Francisco and Seattle collectives, rented space and set up the IMC. That space was not only a storefront, but also a virtual space that continues to grow and develop, despite the grumbles and cynicism of academics in the US and elsewhere.

    DeeDee http://www.deedeehalleck.blogspot.com

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