As seen on : Rodney King Beating Video
The article on the Poynter Institute website might have been thought-provoking, but its headline struck me as merely procative: Rodney King, dead at 47, sparked citizen journalism that’s now commonplace.
King was a 25-year-old robbery parolee who had been drinking on March 31, 1991, when he led authorities on a high-speed chase over Los Angeles surface roads. The Poynter headline and article are a reference to the Sony Handycam video shot by George Holliday, who stepped outside his home and videotaped King’s beating by the Los Angeles police officers who had chased him. The footage was sold to a local television station for $500 and ran repeatedly in the immediate aftermath and during the run-up to the criminal trial against those officers. (Ironcially, it was then supplanted by footage of the beating of Reginald Denny, the white truck driver beaten nearly to death and permanently impaired by rioters after those officers were acquitted.)
The Poynter article begs consideration of at least two questions that have nothing to do with race or police brutality: Was Holliday’s video really an act of “citizen journalism;” and if it was, what does it say about that brand of news-gathering?
Certainly, the contents of Holliday's video were newsworthy. And certainly, he had every right to sell it, just as any freelancer journalist would have a right to sell their work. (The tape fetched $500 from television station KTLA, and Holliday later sued several networks, including CNN that picked it up.)
But if Holliday’s tape was the start of citizen journalism, citizen journalism wasn’t off to a very good start, inasmuch as it failed to capture a lot of relevant context — specifically, the chase that preceded the beating. Exculpatory or not, it certainly figured into the decision of the jury that acquitted the police officers. And one could argue that repeated airing of King's beating — minus the counterbalance of any strong visual of his preceding actions, which also endangered lives — inflamed the riots that followed the verdicts.
That was an important part of the story, too.
Of course, Holliday’s intention wasn’t go gather all the facts; it was merely to relay an eyewitness account of something shockingly suggestive. There’s nothing inherently bad about a retelling of that perspective; nonetheless, it would be more accurate to call Holliday the father of the viral video than the father of citizen journalism.
Frankly, I’ve little hope for journalism of any sort if the distinction between those phenomena is blurred.