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Public Media Prototypes: The I-Witness Video Example

The I-Witness Video Collective, which records police actions at demonstrations, has made some real impact with its citizen-surveillance work. At the 2004 Republican National Convention, video that I-Witness shot of the interactions between protesters and police directly led to charges being dropped against hundreds of activists who had been wrongfully arrested on the false testimony of police officers. But at this year's Republican National Convention, their mission turned personal when the house where they were staying was surrounded and eventually raided by police, who handcuffed them and searched their belongings without a valid search warrant.

Here at CSM we've been discussing the question: "Is I-Witness public media?" It's certainly citizen journalism in the watchdog mode. But public media in the digital age are media that, no matter where they start, facilitate people coming together around a common problem and attempting to find some common response or solution. They are media that function as a catalyst for change.

So, I-Witness video becomes public media as people use it to identify a public problem—in this case, police brutality against people exercising their freedom of expression—and see themselves as affected by it. Has that happened?

Since I-Witness's founding in 2000, members of the collective have provided video footage of police brutality to independent and mainstream news outlets like CNN, the New York Times, and Democracy Now. That level of exposure would certainly allow people to identify police brutality as a problem. Members also train video activists to document police/activist interactions at protests and other events—a way of responding to and attempting to prevent the problem of police brutality. And a cluster of journalism and civil rights organizations—including the ACLU, Reporters Without Borders, the Society for Professional Journalists and others—have been protesting the arrests of journalists at the RNC, using videos by I-Witness and other citizen reporters as evidence.

But ultimately, I-Witness Video, supported by several small foundation grants and the individual donations of people who believe in its mission, is a frail example of public media, because like many independent and citizen-driven media projects, it could collapse at any moment. With only one full-time staff person and a small network of video activists, its ability to monitor free speech gatherings is somewhat limited. It depends on news outlets and commercially-supported networks like YouTube to broadcast its videos; at any moment, those platforms could decide not to carry material that doesn't suit their business plan. It's also vulnerable because the videos that members produce only have legitimacy for audiences who already know about the organization or who trust it because someone in their own, personal or ad-hoc information networks told them. (Viral campaigns work like that.) And for distribution, the collective depends on commercial broadband services that everyone knows are grossly inadequate to today's high-volume uses, much less tomorrow's.

At the same time, I-Witness Video, like many other ad-hoc contributions to public knowledge and action that we've covered on this site, is a fascinating experiment in tomorrow's public media. But in the multi-media world we live in, it has become much more difficult to be effective, because consumers have so much more information to sort through.

How can organizations like I-Witness and the many others who are committed to creating media with a purpose get their message heard, build communities of like-minded people and use that media as a starting-point for action? What kinds of improbable new forms of public media are you seeing or making? Join our conversation by adding your ideas below.