Even in tightly controlled China, anyone can be a reporter
When people are armed with camera phones, information is harder to quash.
Much has been made of the great democratizing impact of the new media – the fact that anyone with a laptop, a modem, and a website can be a journalist.
Of course, as has been mentioned in this very space before, not everyone actually is a journalist. In fact, most people in the United States aren't. Here, early in the technological revolution, the great change in the news media landscape is not a powerful river of new information, but a great torrent of opinion. That's not really a knock on citizen journalists, it's a testament to the fact that there's a lot of information swimming around out there. The big stories that are in plain view generally get covered – it's usually the quiet stuff buried in reports and meetings that's missed – and bloggers often take the role of analyst rather than reporter. With a few notable exceptions (like CBS's Memo-gate) this is simply the way things are evolving in the media-glutted US.
But here in the United States we don't actually have the best view of the media revolution that is under way. To truly understand it and its power to reshape peoples' views of the news and reality, it may be better to look at a more closed, state-run media environment, like that of, say, China. There, an interesting experiment is under way that, in time, could reshape what people know about in their home country.
Eric Zhang, a former staffer at the China Daily news organization based in Beijing, has launched www.molive.cn, a site that lets ordinary people gather news with their camera cellphones. The site, launched three weeks ago, lets people post photos they have taken to their own personal websites with small descriptions of the scenes. Editors comb the postings and put the best ones on Molive's home page. The site is young but already has more than 100 people posting on it from all around the country and more than 20,000 readers a day.
"There has to be a picture. No picture, no report," Mr. Zhang says. "There are all sorts of things. Sometimes accidents, sometimes just an interesting scene, sometimes just a beautiful woman."
But the potential for the site is greater. There are restrictions on it – no courts coverage and no murder or crime – but labor strikes, which technically don't exist in China, are allowed as a subject. And if there is a citizen uprising or disturbance? Zhang says he has not been given formal instructions, but he intends to allow people to post those items – though the site will not promote them to the front page.
The site, which like all Chinese media exists at the government's discretion, is being watched closely by China's leadership, according to its founder and CEO. "They say they are very interested and pleased at the response," Zhang says. "But they also say, 'Take care.' "
There are, of course, a lot of ways to read the creation of Molive. It might be seen as an aid for internal spying – a way for the government to keep tabs on people it sees as troublemakers. And some of the restrictions, like the one on courts coverage, show it is not exactly the home for free- wheeling reportage – though that's not really surprising.
There is also the question of what the site will look like in six months or a year, if it still exists at all. But the creation of Molive is significant because in it may also be a tacit acknowledgment by the Chinese government: Technology has reached the point where the control of information – even in a country as hard-line as China – is becoming difficult and perhaps impossible.
When millions of people are armed with camera phones, information is harder to quash. Anyone can snap a picture of something they weren't supposed to see and – Molive or no Molive – send it to their friends. Those friends have friends. And a story that might once have been a rumor is substantiated. Ultimately, some of those images will probably find their way out of China – and countries like it – giving the rest of the world real, unfiltered news from a place we otherwise cannot see, and that will put pressures on the nation's leaders.
Yes, it may not be as sexy as bloggers finding information that pushed Dan Rather off the evening news, but when the history of the new media revolution is written, it's changes like the ones going on in China that will probably be seen as the earthshaking moments.
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at: Dante Chinni.