Cellphone Videos an Assist to News

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Not only did Hurricane Katrina change the face of New Orleans, it changed the landscape for news reporting, because it demonstrated how local and national news outlets can rely on new technological tools, such as viewer video, to get the story out.

During the coverage of the immediate aftermath of the storm, broadcasters used any source of visuals they could access, including cellphone video from viewers.

Now such tools are becoming de rigueur for news outlets.

For instance, during a recent spate of tornadoes in Iowa, Hearst-Argyle’s CBS station KCCI-TV in Des Moines and ABC station KETV-TV in Omaha, Neb., relied on viewers to help tell the story with video and photos of the tornadoes taken with their cellphones.

The potential of such video, and of a new fleet of Everyman journalists on the street, became apparent during the London subway bombing last year, when pictures from cellphones were submitted to news outlets, said Jack Womack, senior VP of domestic news operations and administration for CNN U.S.

“As more and more people have them in hand it will become part of daily coverage, so we want to be able to integrate it into daily coverage. You want to be able to get [news] from a variety of sources,” he said.

Verification Is Important

As user-submitted video becomes a viable option for CNN, the network is determining how to manage the submissions and decide which ones make it to air, he said. That process includes practical considerations such as how the video is sent, what formats are accepted and what sort of vetting must be done before video makes it on air.

Maintaining journalistic standards is critical as news video begins to flood in from new sources.

For this reason, NBC-owned WNBC-TV in New York does not solicit viewer video. “We are not using a lot because we do not know the source of the video and if it’s been manipulated,” said Dan Forman, senior VP of news and station manager. “You have to be careful. If we do get video unsolicited, we will look at it and verify and then consider it. … We now live in a world where everything can be manipulated, so we have to be very careful and do the best we can as professionals with the tools we have to make sure we bring the truthful story.”

Verification is certainly important, but in the case of the tornadoes, Hearst-Argyle’s Brian Bracco, VP of news, said he wasn’t worried about the veracity of the footage. That’s because the stations knew the tornadoes were indeed occurring and viewer video was supplemental. “You create thousands and thousands of journalists with their video phones,” he said.

In some cases, viewer video can also save the day, Mr. Forman said. Earlier this year, WNBC received home video of the shooting of an off-duty police officer in the Bronx and used that on-air after verifying that the source actually had been on the scene.

ABC’s wireless and broadband service ABCNewsNow actively solicits viewer video for big events and major news stories, said Michael Clemente, executive producer for ABC news digital media. “If we empower regular people with the facts as we know them and access to authority and then empower them to talk back, that’s using the technical tools we have,” he said. “It’s not a one-way communication or you just telling people something.”

Other new tools that will help broadcasters gather news include satellite video phones, which are shrinking in size and cost and expanding in capabilities and coverage, Mr. Womack said. “Those have been upgraded since Katrina. It’ll give more capability to more people in the field,” he said. “Imagine where every journalist can get on the air live because you will have satellite phones that [have] come down in cost and you can deploy more and quality will become more acceptable.”

He expects such phones to be more widely available in eight to 12 months. In terms of size, think backpack rather than suitcase for the whole contraption, he said.