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Just days after the London bombings, after which viewers sent captivating video taken by cellphone cameras to networks around England, CNN rode the wave of citizen journalism into its coverage of Hurricane Dennis. Network officials encouraged viewers, on CNN.com and on the air, to send in written stories, video, audio, and images -- some of which was included in the network's coverage.
Most major news networks are rushing to reach out to their viewing audience for images that might make a contribution to news coverage.
Citizen journalism has quickly infiltrated an industry sometimes sluggish to make big changes, and the phenomenon demonstrates that a mainstream industry has learned its lesson from the revolutionary impact of the Internet.
''Companies are actively looking for the opportunity to take advantage of new technology in a way that they weren't a decade ago," said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for eBusiness at MIT. ''The changes with the Internet took a lot of companies by surprise, and now people see that technology does revolutionize industry."
Although big-box retailers took years to create a large Internet presence, leaving the door open for Amazon.com and others, this time around, news organizations took days -- not years -- to take a relatively new and untested technology and make it an essential part of news coverage.
During the hurricane, MSNBC periodically broadcast commercials inviting viewers to e-mail photos or video to MSNBC to be used on a website or for broadcast. CNN's website drew photos of damaged boardwalks and flooded coastal areas, some of which ended up on the air. Officials at ABC and CBS say that they are developing channels through which the public can submit content.
''These are the kinds of images that will be critical in the future," said Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer for NBC News Specials & Special Projects.
Lukasiewicz said that NBC has worked on citizen journalism projects for a while and accepted viewer-contributed content in the 2004 presidential election but that interest in the project increased after the London attacks.
''It's very clearly going to be something that's going to have a big impact on how we do our work," he said.
Recently, NBC officials have started to equip both reporting and nonreporting staff with cellphone cameras in case they come upon a news story, as have officials at ABC and CBS.
''We could use it at any time," said Paul Slavin, senior vice president for worldwide newsgathering at ABC. ''We might use it in undercover circumstance. We could make it part of the flyaway kit for any correspondent. We need to make sure everybody has it."
In the next couple of months, ABC plans to create a website that will allow viewers to submit images and video. Slavin expects that some of that material will make it on the air but worries that the network will also eventually start to receive fake material.
Robert Zelnick, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University, said that networks might rely more heavily on citizen journalists as they close news bureaus abroad.
''You can't deploy teams in advance, and there will be a proliferation of incidents that news networks are not positioned to handle immediately," he said.
John Moody, senior vice president of news for Fox News, said that Fox hasn't solicited content from the public but that the network sometimes uses pictures or footage from people who contact the network.
If a network does not find easy ways to incorporate viewer-contributed content into broadcasts, it can rest assured that another network will, which has pushed the evolution of citizen content forward more quickly.
''When you saw the video during the bombing, it set off a light bulb where you think, 'What if somebody else got a hold of that video and I didn't?' " said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS. ''It's a competitive issue. If we had gotten that video ourselves, we wouldn't distribute it to other networks."
McGinnis said that the network has had meetings recently to discuss how they might incorporate viewer content. CBS4 in Boston already solicits viewers for images and video and has used them in weather-related stories, said Angie Kucharski, vice president and station manager of CBS4 and UPN38.
During CNN's hurricane coverage, the network received hundreds of submissions, said CNN/US President Jon Klein.
Klein said CNN officials admonished viewers not to take any risks for a photo just as the network mandates safety for its camera crews.
''The greater part of the audience was concerned with getting the hell out of the way, but a few, intrepid, maybe crazy, reporter-type people will take a picture before they go," he said.
By Joe Light
The Boston Globe.