Westminster Attack Highlights Social Media's Citizen Journalism Role

One can draw a multitude of conclusions about today's sad return of terror to London's streets. That the men and women in uniform running to an unknown danger are worthy of the highest praise is unquestionable. Conversely, praise will soon be followed by anger if the perpetrator turns out to be usual low-life petty criminal who was on the police's radar but wasn't taken seriously enough to keep a closer eye on.

While all will be mightily relieved that nobody suffered life-threatening injuries in the attack, there is one inescapable conclusion for the media. We may be in an era where print is suffering a long-drawn-out demise -- as witnessed by redundancies, merged editorial teams and closures -- but we are also firmly at the start of the age of citizen journalism. 

It has been a rallying cry for local newspapers for a long time. Get local people to send in free copy and we'll be saved the axe, the thinking goes. However, all too often only those with a proverbial axe to grind get involved and well-intentioned projects crumble.

However, in digital, on many occasions, there is no better resource for news reporting than accidental citizen journalists who happened to have seen a dramatic event take place before logging on to Twitter to tell the world about it. I'd challenge everyone reading this to think of a time when they last read the news online without several stories referencing tweets, usually lifting them from the page and running them in the middle of flowing copy. It's great for vox pop, just as it is for finding out what the President of the US is thinking at any given time.

What today showed more than anything was that as the police sectioned off a large area around Parliament Square to keep reporters a safe distance from the scene, those same reporters and the public alike were checking out eyewitness reports from social media -- particularly Twitter.

In the past, these people would have taken hours, if not days, to track down by knocking on doors and asking around. Trust me, when I started out on local papers as a student, I did my fair share of "doorstepping." Today, accounts are they are up and being read out by reporters and news desks within minutes. Those eyewitness accounts we are told of before the tv station has a reporter on the scene? You can bet your life they're based on tweets.

There is sometimes exaggeration and warped views at play but there is also the news we'll find out about in due course. I have seen references to where the perpetrator comes from in the UK already reported on Twitter. These early tips are no doubt what the country's media will currently be attempted to "firm up" before reporting. 

In the absence of reporters having access to the police, beyond initial brief announcements, nor the area, Twitter comes into its own.

My prediction is that we will find the criminal concerned has some grudge against the UK authorities and will likely have a history of mental illness or petty crime, and possibly both. To ram a car through a crowd of cyclists before screeching into a barrier at probably the most protected site in the UK, while neither house is sitting hardly appears to be the result of a well-planned attack. 

What we can take from the attack is that citizen journalism is alive and well -- and it didn't need a newspaper to bring people into its proverbial campaign tent to get launched. It just kind of accidentally happened through social media and, at times like this, it is initially much of the basis of what we have to go on when a major event unfolds and the police tape is lowered.

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