The rise of the man-on-the-street report

The tsunami in Japan is an utter catastrophe, being brought to TVs and computers around the world in almost real time.

japan tsunami damage 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
japan tsunami damage 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A mere two and a half months into 2011 and this year has already brought us images many of us never thought possible and others wish they would never have had to see. While we’re watching, we are unaware that the pictures we are seeing and some of the narratives being reported are true watershed moments for television news.
The most heart-wrenching images are coming from Japan. The devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. Japan is a ‘wired’ nation, with cellphones and cameras everywhere, and it seemed that the international news outlets were inundated with pictures which came out of a Hollywood blockbuster using heavy special effects. Seeing is believing, but in this case it was hard to believe.
The aerial shots of the tsunami hitting the coast just minutes after it happened is chilling. The ships, cars, buildings and houses in Sendai being washed away like toys is something I will never forget. In the back of your mind, you know that what you’re watching are the moments when thousands of people lost their homes, their jobs and, in many cases, their lives.
It is complete and utter catastrophe, being brought to TVs and computers around the world in almost real time. This is disaster as the world has literally never seen before. One of the key components of the coverage was the video and commentary from the “man on the street.”
Ordinary folks with no professional training took pictures with their cellphones or other equipment and sent them over the Internet to the international media outlets which aired them, sometimes without any editing.
While we’ve seen isolated cases of this before, with the first two days of the disaster, it seemed very noticeable, especially on the 24-hour news channels, in need of fresh video when it got dark in Japan. These pictures and accounts, illustrating the points of view of average people while the buildings shook and a wall of water was washing over cities, were moving, terrifying and very effective.
In other situations, using the man-on-the-street method can cause some serious problems, especially when it comes to covering more controversial topics such as Libya, which was topping global newscasts until the earthquake hit Japan.
BEING FAMILIAR with the history of conflicts in the Arab world, one can only be astonished by the relations of both sides of the Libyan conflict with the international press over the past few weeks as they strive to gain favor in the eyes of the world.
The rebels have given the foreign press unprecedented access to types of scenes rarely seen on the news. Correspondents actually going into battle against government forces and coming under fire, all the while showing the rebels as the common people; although I don’t know of too many commoners who have RPGs and machine guns in their homes.
They are also more than willing to falsify and exaggerate about events. Injured instead of dead, attacks where there were none, and strength where there is weakness. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia, the two main pan-Arab channels, and not exactly fans of the regime, are also using the man-on-thestreet method, but they are using rebels as “witnesses” and “correspondents” who are painting a very anti-Gaddafi picture. It’s all part of the game.
As for Muammar Gaddafi’s side, it has actually been inviting members of the international press to come and see what’s going on, as long as they are properly guided, of course. The Libyan leader has given several interviews to key media outlets – interviews which were more like vaudeville acts than serious questions and answers. His people handed out CDs of attacks on rebel targets, showing them as military targets. Gaddafi himself is openly blaming al- Qaida, the West’s number one enemy, for the uprising, all to win over public opinion. It seems impossible that he or any other Arab leader would look to so explain internal strife – but we’re all watching it.
It’s clear that the lies are blatant and the victory celebrations staged, but journalists have to go along with it, otherwise there could be serious consequences. There have already been several reports of correspondents and technical staff being detained and tortured.
The fact is that there is simply no way to put a lid on information flow, and the players must woo the media the best they can. It is part of the battle plan, and no less important than the arsenals used by both sides.
NO LESS amazing the hypocritical reaction of the West. The EU and the Americans have been very public in condemning the killing of civilians and calling for Gaddafi’s removal. They are right to do so. The loss of life is indeed a tragedy, and it does seem to be happening on a large scale in places like Zawiyah and Benghazi. But if the world powers want to denounce the deaths of innocents, they’d better be ready to go further than Libya.
All across Africa and the Arab world, dictatorships regularly round up their own citizens, throw them in jail, torture, mutilate and even kill them. The only difference is that they don’t often do it with fighter jets and tanks, as Libya is. Will the West stick to its guns and demand that other dictatorships – like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Syria – live up to the values of human rights? Will it take them and others to task if they don’t? If it does, that’s going to be another act I won’t believe, even if I see it.
The writer is an independent media consultant, an adjunct lecturer at IDC Herzliya’s School of Communications and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York. [email protected]