On March 3, 1991, from his apartment balcony a Los Angeles plumber named George Holliday used a bulky Sony Handycam to record city police battering a drunk driver, Rodney King, after a high-speed chase. Holliday offered police a nine-minute video of the beating but was rebuffed, so he sold it to KTLA-TV. The footage became a national scandal, and four officers were charged. (They were white; King was black.) A year later an all-white jury let them off, and the city exploded in riots that claimed 53 lives.
Holliday’s tape wasn’t the first instance of high-impact citizen journalism. Nearly three decades earlier Dallas clothier Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm Bell & Howell camera shot the most vivid photographic record of John Kennedy’s murder.
But the Rodney King video made history out of an event that would have gone unnoticed, and today Holliday’s heirs are everywhere. With the universal spread of high-quality optics that require no skill, and of the means to publish images instantly and globally, the streets are full of ordinary people with greater communicative power in their pockets than the most influential news organization on earth had a generation ago.
Are they journalists? That’s not a pointless question. The issue of whether these unsalaried irregulars may merit some of the special standing journalists have traditionally had is becoming hard to ignore. Continue reading “When everybody’s a journalist”