Cell journalism

by Carolynne Burkholder

More often than not, major news happens and there is no one around to report it. By way of interviews and records of the event, reporters are able to ‘re-create’ it for the morning paper. Unfortunately, there is usually not the opportunity to capture news in the making with a photograph.

But when the London Underground was bombed on July 7, 2005, photos of the event were published on websites and blogs, and made their way to the mainstream media. It was the people with camera cell phones that captured the images, not reporters.

Yuki Noguchi of the Washington Post writes that “some of the most intimate images of [the July 7] bomb blasts in London came from cell phones equipped with cameras and video recorders, demonstrating how a technology originally marketed as entertainment has come to play a significant role in up-to-the-minute news.”

The new ‘cell journalists’ who happen to be in the right place, at the right time, can then sell their photos to news sources for a price. Spy Media, started by Tom Quinn, former president of Novell, Scoopt, and Cell Journalist, are three websites that connect the cell journalists with the news media who are willing to pay money for action shots.

This technology is becoming more popular and the quality is improving as a result. Currently, cell phones with cameras are out-selling digital cameras by a four-to-one ratio. There are estimates that camera phones may be equipped with newspaper-quality cameras as early as next year.

Ethical issues

Cell journalism is a form of citizen journalism, or the process of citizens reporting news, side-stepping traditional news media, and creating their own form of journalism. For more on citizen journalism, see our section on blogging.

Ethical problems faced by cell journalists include all the problems associated with photojournalism in general: the digital manipulation of images, privacy concerns, and the use of graphic images, (see photojournalism section). But cell journalists also have a new set of issues to deal with.


As photos are published on the web from all over the world, it is difficult to check their authenticity. Cell Journalist and Scoopt scan all uploaded photos and also make contact with the photographer to ensure the authenticity of the photo. In contrast, Spy Media does not pre-screen their photos. “We don’t censor,” said co-founder, Brian Quinn. “News is like fish. It goes bad quickly. It needs to be available immediately.”

Traditionally, news organizations were able to ensure the authenticity of photos through a process of verification with their photographers. Even with the rise of freelance journalism, there was still some contact between the news media and the photojournalist. With the new cell journalists, however, this contact and process of verification is lost.

Cell journalism articles:
“Camera Phones Lend Immediacy to Images of Disaster” by Yuki Noguchi
“The Future Of Photojournalism” by Danit Lidor