May 06, 2004

Digital Proof, Human Source

The media wary Bush administration's fears of journalists running untethered amidst military operations in Iraq and eroding the American public's will for war with gruesome images of dead and dismembered G.I's appears to have been completely unfounded.

The two biggest recent stories to emerge from the Iraq - the administration's don't-show-don't-know policy toward the photographing of military caskets and the puerile abuses by Army reservists inside Abu Ghraib prison - were based on digital photographs not made by journalists but by participants in both stories.

The photograph of flag-covered caskets crammed into a military cargo plane was taken by a civilian airport worker in Kuwait and the prison porn was shot by the abusers themselves, the reservists of the 372nd Military Police Company.

Reporters and cops know insiders make the best sources. Richard Nixon, Martha Stewart and even Bill Clinton (Monica was the ultimate insider!) were burned by the people they manipulated - the Watergate burglars, Douglas Faneuil and "that woman." Will the furloughed prison guards, truck drivers and community college hopefuls of the 372nd take out Donald Rumsfeld?

One thing is for certain: Digital cameras have changed the nature of news sources. What was once asserted to be true can now be proven (and, of course, manipulated). The latest batch of Abu Ghraib photos, published today by the Washington Post, was "mixed in with more than 1,000 digital pictures obtained by" the paper, most of which resembled "a travelogue from Iraq," albeit one with a side-trip to a wax museum of horrors.

The pictures were burned onto CDs and "circulated among soldiers in the 372nd," the Post reported.

Of course. For a digital generation of soldiers accustomed to Napstering music, it's no technology leap at all and not much of an ethical step to burn a platter of soft-core prison porn and pass it around. This is the world's most technologically-enabled fighting force, and not just militarily. The Post reports:

"For many units serving in Iraq, digital cameras are pervasive and yet another example of how technology has transformed the way troops communicate with relatives back home. From Basra to Baghdad, they e-mail pictures home. Some soldiers, including those in the 372nd, even packed video cameras along with their rifles and Kevlar helmets."

Imagine how quickly the slaughter of innocents at My Lai would have become known had it been captured by a palm-sized digital camera (or phone) instead of reported by letter.

What does this mean for journalism?

First, it converts all camera-toting participants of an event into potential irrefutable witnesses and therefore sources.

Second, these witnesses also have the capability to become citizen reporters (who may or may not attempt to "report" journalistically and instead prefer to "show" a version of an event from their own viewpoint).

Third, it further dilutes the traditional role of mainstream journalists as the primary providers of news. As more citizens become not only subjects and sources but also reporters, professional journalists are increasingly disintermediated.

The deflation of high technology into everyday tools usable by anyone redefines journalism's core function (reporting what happened) from the practice of an elite few to a possibility for many.

The linear nature of news - flowing from source to journalist to public - is disrupted. Journalists must adapt. Explanation and context and depth become more important as the basic "what happened" becomes more commoditized. Official sources - government and corporate authorities - become devalued as they grow warier of and less honest toward the news media; unofficial sources (prison guards, cargo loaders) increase in value. Assertion loses out to proof and the standard of fact is raised.

Ironically, what much of this means is that in a digital world, the human source, the one man or the one woman who was there, who saw, who heard, who documented, trumps all else.

Posted by Tim Porter at May 6, 2004 04:44 PM

Just a great little essay. Many thanks. Posted hereunder "new and noteworthy"

Posted by: John Schott on May 26, 2004 05:58 AM
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