The responsibilities of the eye-witness

A week ago I was heading home from a whistle-stop visit to Brussels to take part in a conference about social media and crisis communication. It was a world away from the streets of Manchester. The discussion was about citizen journalists, eye-witness reporting in a digital age, empowering the public and guidance on social media use.

This was definitely a packed conference trying to develop guidance for emergency responders but more importantly for the public who were going to be the first on the scene. It made me wonder whether the role of the first people on the scene, those members of the public who see things happen, had now transformed crisis
communication? Does the fact that people will be filming or capturing events as they unfold put them in control of the response to a crisis or emergency?

I don’t have a definitive answer but can only draw upon personal experiences through working in the emergency services for more than 15 years. When I first started working with emergencies it was all about control. Keeping a hold of information and then releasing elements as they were required. There could be hours between an incident occurring and some real information being put out. Social media at that point hadn’t been thought of so the total focus was on media relations.

In 2015 the world has been transformed. Every time there is a significant event, emergency or crisis then it is the eye-witness who decides what will and won’t be released. They provide the information, the perspective and the detail. It is this action and the opportunities of social media that has changed the emergency response and the communication. More information has to be released at an earlier stage to attempt to manage situations. It has increased the openness but also led to emergency responses being played out in minute detail across the world.

If the eye-witnesses have such an important role to play, are they ready to step up into the role? Will they be honest and show all the aspects of what is in front, or will they edit the information? What do we expect from those providing the first look at the emergency and are we prepared to accept the inevitable response?

Whatever the answer is there are some key elements that people need to be aware of before they find themselves as an eyewitness. Firstly, will the member of the public be putting themselves at risk by publishing the information and do they understand what they may do. Secondly, are the details of the possible legal restrictions fully understood. In the same way journalists will have studied media law, so citizen reporters need to be clear about essential legal issues. Thirdly, will they operate in the immediacy of the event or will they follow things through over a period of time? Finally, on what basis are they operating? Is it to make money or to be public-spirited and to assist people’s’ understanding of what has happened?

It is an interesting concept to give members of the public information that would assist them if they found themselves as an eye-witness. I am not sure how the COSMIC European study plans to make people aware of the guidance once it is finalised. It is easy to make emergency responders aware of the document through the clear networks that exist. The public is not that easy to access. They would need to be interested in the information and that is unlikely unless they have been at the forefront of an emergency. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to try to have a discussion about the responsibilities that exist for the citizen journalist.

Finally, I want to thank the COSMIC study for allowing me to take part in the conference and to share learning, experiences and to discuss the challenges ahead.

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