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Citizen Journalism Goes Mobile in Wisconsin

By Marianne Manilov

An important moment happened in citizen organizing and journalism this past week in Wisconsin, as citizen media stepped in to take the place of live reporting.

Salon Reporter Joan Walsh rightly points out that while CNN has managed to embed reporters with the Tea Party in the past, they have been a no-show in Wisconsin.  In fact, while some of the alternative media has done a great job,  none of the major media  has had ongoing coverage of  the Wisconsin protests.  The bill proposed by Governor Walker, which would deny most public workers the majority of their collective bargaining rights, has national implications and is slated to spread to other states. People on Twitter have been pushing on the media to show up:

ilyseh: “Mainstream” media pronounced officially dead after total abdication of responsibility in WI today. Bu-bye @msnbc @CNN #weareWI #WIunion

Fox News, on the other hand, has held strong coverage of the labor protests in Wisconsin. They understand that the national narrative in Wisconsin will shape the story for the rest of the country, and that this is not a one state fight.

Fox News showed footage of angry protesters framed by palm trees while reporting on the events in Wisconsin, to which Twitter users responded furiously, as locals huddle against freezing temperatures in sleeping bags.

The media shut-out is starving the movement of critical support and we need to continue to call it out.  However, major media’s absence highlights the increasing ability of citizen media to also aggregate a group of people to  tell  a breaking media story.   It is our responsibility to use available media to engage in live reporting when major media fails us and to make sure we have training and tools to bring mobile media to new levels of reporting and watching.

On Sunday, I was alerted to an urgent situation by text from a friend in Wisconsin,  “The police are going to remove us at 4:00 p.m.”  A quick search lead me to a USTREAM link, where local people were filming the events and declaring, “this isn’t going to be decided here.”  The homespun team apologized that they could not simultaneously film outdoors, where protesters were forming a ring around the Capitol several thousand strong.  I watched as the numbers on USTREAM went from 2,000 to 10,000.  And then— it went blank. We later found out that the Internet was shut down in the Capitol for a period of time.

Luckily there was no shortage of citizen coverage of the events. Ben Brandzel offered live stream from his cell phone.  (Videos of some of his reporting can be found on his live stream feed)

It was media reporting Wikipedia-style at its best: Brandzel was able to receive real time feedback for his reporting, adjusting his camera angle or selecting specific phone images based on his audience’s requests.

Eventually, Brandzel, who was on crutches from a fall, found deeper footing.  He began interviewing medics and teachers. On shaky camera, we saw the jacket of an off-duty police officer that clearly was not leaving.  We sang along with the crowd to “The Star Spangled Banner.” We heard live via Brandzel when Republican Senator Dale Shultz announced that he would not back the union-busting bill. (As of the writing of this blog, Shultz is undecided as to how he will vote.) At one point, Brandzel down at his phone and said, “That’s my mom calling, I’ll really have to call her back.”

One hundred thousand people from around the world participated in the protests via Ben Brandzel.  Those from Switzerland and New Jersey stood in solidarity.  Online watchers engaged by sending messages of support and declaring a need for food, prompting individuals from all 50 states to order pizza from Ians to be delivered to protesters. For a time @brandzel was trending on Twitter in DC.

Brandzel ended with a beautiful editorial (at 24:42 on this video) about the fact that in Wisconsin, the script today was changed.  The protesters’ ability to maintain hold over the building and instigate the Senate shift were unanticipated victories.  And as protesters continue to show up in the snow and cold and The Democratic Party steps in to recall the Republican Senators, the script is, like in Egypt, still being written.  As Brandzel reported:

… How long will the people be able to hold this space?  How long will the protests continue… Where this goes will be a factor of the energy that comes from in here and the energy that comes from out there from all of you.

As distributive organizing —decentralized leaderless networks—spread, it makes sense that citizen media is following course.  A similar bill to the one in Wisconsin was introduced this week in Ohio and squeezed out passage in the Senate by last minute political maneuvering. As the attack on working families heads to the GOP-controlled House in Ohio and other States around the country, one twitterfeed suggested:  “We need a national iPhone brigade just to keep up…”

And it’s coming.  Better mobile digital technology and twenty trained citizen journalists tied to a strong network of national people and social champions could shift the coverage.  Imagine 20 phones inside the Capitol of Wisconsin and someone editing the feed outside.  Imagine top social champions on facebook and twitter coordinated to push out the live coverage.  Mainstream media coverage remains critical, but so too is building out our network and increasing our presence on the ground when no one will tell our stories.  @Brandzel and 100,000 people today, who co-created live media with him, were part of that beginning.

(Note: read Brandzel’s blog about his experience here)

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