Citizen Watchdogs

Case Study: Citizen Journalists Monitoring Authority

On January 1, 2009 a police officer working for the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant on a train platform in Oakland, California. Several witnesses on the train used digital and cell phone cameras to record the incident.

The videos appeared to show the officer, Johannes Mehserle, standing above Grant as he lay face-down on the platform, while another officer restrained Grant's neck and head. Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot Grant once in the back. The videos that surfaced show a variety of angles and views, some partially blocked by the heads of other passengers, others where the cameraperson apparently stepped off the train and onto the platform to get a better view. Some videos were sent to news stations while others went on YouTube.com and were picked up from there by Bay area news.

As the videos of the shooting – largely copied from TV news segments – were shared repeatedly online and were viewed a half million times in the days after the shooting, public attention and anger grew, resulting in riots a week later and the resignation of the officer involved. Perhaps more importantly, the videos were part of the reason the district attorney chose to file murder charges against Mehserle and were to be used in the trial of the officer.

The incident also inspired BART directors to meet six months later to discuss the possibility of creating a citizen oversight model for BART police (KTVU News).

Tools to record and distribute pictures and videos are becoming more accessible – cheaper, more broadly available, more portable – to the general public, and are often included in devices people already carry, such as cell phones. Citizens are thus in a better position to act as watchdogs on institutions of authority, filling a role journalists traditionally claim to satisfy in society. Two women whose videos of the BART shooting were shown at the preliminary hearing of murder charges against Mehserle said they started recording because they felt the officers were acting inappropriately (San Jose Mercury News), showing that some citizens seem to understand the importance of the watchdog role.

This case demonstrates not only the extraordinary power of citizens to act in lieu of journalists – who can’t possibly be everywhere when something is happening – but also their power to lead news coverage, rather than follow the lead of mainstream media outlets. Their recordings of the shooting provided a version of events that might not have otherwise been available and their sharing of the videos online fed local and national outrage over the issue.

Some caution that citizen journalists do not have the training or professional experience to properly record events, or that they might place themselves in danger when attempting to act as “watchdogs.” KTVU includes a section on its Web site about how amateur videographers should behave, but of course that is no guarantee that citizens will behave ethically in choosing what to record, or how they behave while recording or making use of video. Another concern is the development of potentially unhealthy relationships of co-veillance in which citizens begin monitoring each other.

Therefore part of teaching citizens to be media literate is also making them aware of the opportunity – and perhaps responsibility – to also record events in their communities and share them with the rest of the world online or via mainstream news organizations, and to do so in an ethical manner. In this way we may not always have to rely on journalists to defend citizens against abuses by institutions of authority – we can become part of the defense ourselves.