2007-01-07 Cell phone videos transforming TV news

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NEW YORK - Michael Richards in a West Hollywood comedy club and the authorities in Iraq who executed Saddam Hussein painfully learned that the prying eyes of television news can belong to anyone who carries a cell phone.

Saddam's execution and Richards' flameout illustrate the growing power of cell-phone video as a news tool, not only to supplement stories but to change them.

"It brought to a fore the sense that wow, this is a ubiquitous technology," said Mark Lukasiewicz, NBC News vice president for digital media. "Cameras are now in places where cameras never used to be. That's transformational."

Iraqi authorities angrily searched for the people who recorded and distributed a video of Saddam's execution after the grainy footage emerged and spread quickly over the Internet and, in abridged form, on television.

It told a much different story than the government-authorized video issued about six hours after Saddam's hanging. That depicted the former leader fitted first with a black scarf, then a thick noose. Separate pictures showed his body in a white shroud, with visible blood stains. The pictures had no audio.

"For the first time, I felt as a certainty that there was going to be bootlegged distribution of the official tape or a bootlegged version of the execution," said Jonathan Klein, CNN U.S. president. "I had never had that level of certainty before. Somehow, you just knew."

Within 12 hours, Klein was proven right.

TV networks had little use for pictures of Saddam falling through the trap door; they weren't shown for taste reasons. But this video had audio, revealing angry exchanges and people loudly taunting Saddam in his final moments.

Without the cell-phone video, viewers were left to assume that the execution was carried out professionally. Instead, the video revealed a chaotic scene that to many commentators symbolized everything that had gone wrong with the Iraq war and somehow made a brutal dictator a sympathetic figure.

An audience member's cell phone caught the angry, racially offensive tirade unleashed by Richards at a Los Angeles comedy club in November. Repeated over and over on news networks, it became a major story that may effectively end Richards' career.

Would it have even been a story without the video? If witnesses had described it later and Richards denied his actions, it could have been a he-said, she-said story with many people not believing the beloved Kramer would do such a thing. There's a good chance the story would have gotten out in some form, however, because a friend of a CNN producer was in the audience and phoned in a tip.

"It probably would have been a story but it wouldn't have been as big a story," Klein said. "That was the smoking gun. It was so appalling to watch. It was like watching a train wreck."

Cell-phone video, despite having not nearly the picture quality of those produced by professional broadcasters, "does what pictures often do — it reveals the truth of the story," Lukasiewicz said.

"Witnesses tend to argue," he said. "What one person saw might be different from what another person saw. The picture doesn't lie, but the picture isn't the whole story."

Television networks have taken viewer-contributed video ever since the advent of hand-held video cameras. Still, people aren't likely to be carrying a video camera when news suddenly happens. They probably have their cell phones, however.

Video capability has been around since the camera phones were introduced in 2000, but didn't gain significant acceptance in the United States until Sprint introduced a popular service in 2003.

An estimated 70 percent of Americans carry cell phones. Nearly one quarter of cell phone users — an estimated 55.5 million people — have phones with video capability. One-third of them claim to use their video feature at least once a week, according to analyses by InfoTrends and The Yankee Group.

News organizations became aware of the potential of cell-phone video during the 2005 London subway bombing, when riders' phones captured images conventional cameras didn't, said David Rhodes, Fox News Channel vice president of news.

Networks even use their own cell-phone video in cases where reporters aren't accompanied by cameramen. NBC's first pictures of roof damage from inside the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina were taken by Brian Williams. Fox News aired cell-phone video in the initial stages of covering New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's fatal plane crash.

Digital technology has the power to make everyone a news reporter, said David Westin, ABC News president.

"That has enormous potential for good and also has enormous potential for mischief," he said. "The challenge for us is to get the good and weed out the mischief."

Someone with a camera, an agenda and modest acting abilities can try to fool a news organization. Some people simply enjoy the sport of it. During coverage of a hurricane, one viewer sent NBC News a picture of supposed damage, when in fact it was a professionally taken photo from another storm, Lukasiewicz said. It requires a careful vetting process unnecessary when the networks gather their own material, Westin said. But it's the future. Or, more accurately, the present. CNN in 2006 introduced technology to enable viewers to upload video taken on any device and easily send it to the network, where a staff is assigned to look over the material for newsworthiness. Things like the Richards video, which stunned Klein when he first saw it. "There was an intensity to it," he said. "It became an 'Oh, my God, we have to put that on the air' kind of story. There will be many, many more of those to come in the future."


Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.