Citizen Journalism

By arming citizen journalists with webcams, a San Antonio TV station launches a new era in broadcast journalism.

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The staff at KVDA-TV, a small Spanish-language commercial news station in San Antonio, is well aware that most of the stories they report aren’t going to make it to the national news. Like most small stations, KVDA focuses on the local angle. So it was exciting when a report about a successful campaign to get the local high school to invest in new marching band uniforms drew the attention of media observers around the country.

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The reason? It wasn’t the reporter’s thorough investigation, or the photographer’s creative shots of band members at practice. What got people talking about the KVDA report was follow-up commentary by community members broadcast live via webcam during the regular news report.

“The very first night we tried it out it worked exactly as we had intended,” says KVDA general manager Emilio Nicolas Jr. of his station’s foray into video activism. Inspired in part by the work of activists armed with video cameras at international protests and aided by a gift of computers from an advertiser, Nicolas and his co-workers outfitted a test group of “ordinary people active in their immediate neighborhoods” with computer equipment and webcams. These “community correspondents,” who were also given broadband access and cable modems, connect directly to the station using computer software. After a brief sound check, the correspondents image appears live on a screen behind the anchors. Station employees showed the community correspondents how to use their new equipment (only people without computer equipment of their own were selected for the job, Nicolas says) and asked them to follow stories and report back on the issues they felt deserved coverage on the evening news. When a story that falls under a specific community correspondent’s range of expertise is aired, Nicolas says, station staff will contact him or her and get feedback live on the air.

“The nature of TV reporting is such that it ends up leaving more questions than answers,” says Nicolas, a San Antonio native who worked in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco before returning home to head KVDA. “We don’t usually give viewers a chance to say to reporters, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not the way it happened. I was there.’ I’ve never seen news so filtered as it is here in San Antonio. We want to give the people a forum to tell it like they see it.”

Parents had reported that “the kids in the band were being treated horribly,” Nicolas recalls. “They were marching in tattered uniforms, the instrument cases were falling apart. It was a good band, but they looked horrible. The kids were embarrassed because they’d go to parades and have to march in these ugly uniforms.”

So KVDA assigned a reporter to cover the story. She spoke with students, parents, and administrators, and attended a community meeting where the school pledged to provide new uniforms for the band. When the segment aired, the superintendent appeared live on camera to make the announcement. If this were a regular situation, Nicolas says, that would be the end of the story. But a community correspondent was on the air as well, and, according to Nicolas, after the superintendent spoke, she challenged his interpretation of the meeting’s results.

The superintendent had to address the correspondent’s concerns immediately, Nicolas says, rather than putting her off till a later date. “If we had wrapped everything up without getting a reaction, things may not have ever gotten settled,” Nicolas recalls. “In the news business, it is tempting just to put the nice bow on the package and move on to the next story. With this program, we’re forced to see everything through to the conclusion.”

Nicolas’ scheme is still picking up steam (only 4 of a hoped-for 30 correspondents have been set up with computer equipment, for instance), but he’s already attracting attention in the industry. When he spoke about his plans at a recent news reporters’ conference, insiders weighed in with their opinions. The reaction was mixed.

“Older journalists have interesting questions about the ethics,” Nicolas says. “Some journalism professors said they thought we are getting too close to advocacy journalism. Others—younger ones, especially—seemed excited. They saw all these integration possibilities.”

In the San Antonio Current, Rob Huesca, Trinity University communication professor, gave the debut high marks. “It was refreshing to see ordinary people on television,” he told reporter Don Freidkin, “that unrehearsed, unscripted, unedited genuineness did come through. It was refreshing because you never see that on television news.”

It’s true that more and more activists are arming themselves with video cameras, though most don’t have ties to broadcast news stations like KVDA. In North America, organizations like Deep Dish TV and Street Level Youth Media in Chicago outfit regular folks with technology that will beam their stories to the world. In Bangladesh, the community development organization Banchte Shekha gave activist Aklima Begum a video camera to document cases of domestic violence and dowry abuse. Her tapes have been used to educate and to advocate for just settlements in traditional village hearings, according to MediaRights.org.

Nicolas hopes new band uniforms are just the beginning. There’s great promise for this new technology, he says, and he hopes he can play a role in the video revolution. “The power’s in the people,” he says. “I see the power of the camera as a great tool. This is an example of technology allowing people to express themselves and to show that they do have the power to change their world.”

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