Commentary

Japan Quake Shows the Limits of User-Generate Content

One of the big promises of the digital age was that journalism would be transformed by an army of amateur videographers - namely, all of us regular citizens - who might just happen to be nearby when something important goes down. And it's true this kind of user-generate content has provided some pretty amazing scoops and footage from incidents which might otherwise have been missed by "real" TV news outfits: some of the most alarming video I have ever seen is amateur, close-up footage of tornadoes (I mean really close-up - way closer than any professional news outfit would get). But it's also clear that the close-up perspective of the random passer-by just can't compete with professionals when it comes to certain types of events.

All this occurred to me while watching video of the huge earthquake and resulting tsunami, which devastated northeastern Japan, drawn from both amateur and professional sources. Although I can't claim to have seen all the user-generated video coming out of Japan, I feel confident stating that most of the really compelling (and frequently disturbing) video was produced by professional news orgs - usually with no warning or time to prepare.

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One big advantage the professional news outfits had in terms of resources was mobility and perspective - specifically the aerial mobility and bird's-eye perspective provided by traffic helicopters, which were able to turn their focus from congested highways to the approaching tsunami, capturing awful (but spectacular) footage of giant waves sweeping huge ships and mountains of debris over neat, orderly farmland and villages. As so often is the case, the most compelling footage was also the most terrifying, and some of the scenes were positively apocalyptic: a building on fire riding the flood tide into the center of a small town, an oil refinery in billowing flames.

By contrast, the user-generated content - while interesting for its man-on-the-street perspective - simply couldn't capture the scale of the event or the damage inflicted. Videos taken by regular folks out in the streets or in their offices appeared to show some shaking, but (no offense, amateur cinematographers) the usual fumbling of inexperienced videographers made it impossible to get a sense how much was the earthquake, and how much was the person holding the camera moving around. Likewise, amateur videographers tend to be a little too frenetic: because they want to capture everything, they keep on whirling around to focus on some new subject, before whirling back to see what's going on over there - and end up capturing nothing of interest.

5 comments about "Japan Quake Shows the Limits of User-Generate Content".
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  1. Shane Lennon, March 11, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.

    I could not disagree more - the UGC was far better than most of the TV networks, repeating the same pieces and having their so called experts stating either the obvious or obscure and eventually the TV networks using UGC as it was better.

  2. Scott Wilder, March 11, 2011 at 7:01 p.m.

    Not sure I understand why the typical amateur photographer can't capture the scale of an event or damage inflicted. They did a good job with the uprisings in Egypt.

  3. Kevin Orbit from Orbit Creative Media, March 12, 2011 at 3:43 a.m.

    Well of course professional video is better than amateur video. But you missed the point that UGC captures unexpected video where otherwise no camera would be present. The tsunami had warnings and followed the earthquake. The tsunami was captured by pro news because they knew what was "going to happen": "specifically the aerial mobility and bird's-eye perspective provided by traffic helicopters, which were able to turn their focus from congested highways to the approaching tsunami, capturing awful (but spectacular) footage of giant waves sweeping huge ships and mountains of debris over neat, orderly farmland and villages."

  4. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, March 13, 2011 at 12:43 a.m.

    I was airborne on a flight from LAX to Sydney when it happened. It is a shame that when trying to catch up on video of the event via a Google search that I have trawl through heaps of UGC in order to get to the pro journo perspective that I want to see... Bottom line is that I, like most people, do not have time for that and I want my media packaged, vetted and presented to me in a professorial manner.

  5. David Astley, March 13, 2011 at 1:10 p.m.

    I can understand your point of view, Erik, in that this article was written yesterday. But today we have seen some extraordinary amateur footage. Most of this was shot by people in towns around Sendai and further north. They had no Internet connections so were unable to get it out until news crews arrived on the scene and UGC was passed onto them. Much of the content that I have seen today on the major international news networks in Asia has been every bit as compelling as we saw shot from the NHK news choppers on the first day. I think there will be a lot more to come in the next few days.

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