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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
How 7/7 'democratised' the media
The BBC's Torin Douglas
By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

It may not be the most significant legacy of the London bombings, but 7 July 2005 marked a turning point for the media.

That was the day the phenomenon of "user-generated content" (UGC) or "citizens' journalism" came into its own in Britain, as members of the public took over the roles of photographers and news correspondents.

That day, the BBC received 22,000 e-mails and text messages about the London tube and bus bombings.

There were 300 photos - 50 within an hour of the first bomb going off - and several video sequences.

With events happening largely underground, far removed from the eyes of the media professionals, the mobile phone camera came into its own, helping illustrate the day's horrific events in a way that would not have been possible before.

Stills from passengers on the Tube led the BBC News bulletins

The public's photos of the bus with its roof blown off helped confirm this was a bomb and not a power surge, as London Underground had first suggested.

Dramatic stills and video sequences from passengers on the Tube trains led the BBC Six O'Clock News bulletin, the first time such material had been deemed more newsworthy than the professionals' material.

They not only conveyed the choking, claustrophobic atmosphere but also provided significant evidence, helping identify the time of the explosions.

Newsrooms began actively soliciting the public's pictures and eye-witness accounts, followed shortly after by the Metropolitan Police, which set up its own e-mail address for people to send pictures to.

Two weeks later, there were four more attempted bombings in London, followed by the arrests of the suspects.

By then the public knew what was expected of them and the pictures and videos poured in.

We now get 10,000 e-mails a day and 200 pictures a week, just as a matter of course - and when there is a big story it goes through the roof
Vicky Taylor, BBC News

By the time of the huge fire at the Buncefield oil depot in Hertfordshire a few months later, the one-time trickle of images had become a flood.

The first picture reached the BBC within 13 minutes of the explosion, followed shortly by the first video.

Unlike the 7 July bombings, there were thousands of eye-witnesses.

By lunchtime the BBC had received 5,000 images, and by the end of the day 10,000.

A year on, media organisations are still coming to terms with the impact of "user-generated content", in all its various forms - photos, videos, information and views.

The BBC's interactive team has taken on extra staff and new software to cope with the flow of material.

Vicky Taylor is its "editor, interactivity", a title which itself reflects the changing media landscape.

David Otway's picture of the oil depot blaze
An image taken from an airliner was one of 10,000 e-mailed to the BBC

"We now get 10,000 e-mails a day and 200 pictures a week, just as a matter of course - and when there is a big story it goes through the roof," she says.

"Many of these e-mails come from people taking part in our debates on the big issues of the day and at one time every comment we published was cut and pasted by a journalist.

"Now, thanks to the new software, we're publishing 10 times more than we used to - but that also means we have had to introduce a system where some debates are not moderated."

The BBC has also had lengthy and detailed debates on how best to use the photos, videos and eye-witness material it receives.

Some journalists have criticised what they called the "tacky, almost voyeuristic tone" in which the BBC - and other media - urge the public to send in their photos of potentially tragic news events.

There have been fears that the public might put themselves in danger by trying to get better pictures of events such as the Buncefield fire, so there is now a clear warning on the relevant page of the BBC website.

There is also some concern about the widely-used term "citizen's journalism" to describe all this activity.

Warren McKenzie's picture of the oil depot blaze
Warren McKenzie took this image of the fire from a nearby house

Many activists and bloggers applaud the trend, claiming it is democratising the media world and taking power away from the media conglomerates.

They say blogs claimed the scalps of CNN News boss Eason Jordan and CBS anchor Dan Rather by exposing errors in news coverage.

But others feel the term "citizens' journalism" is too vague and all-encompassing, since many of the people submitting photos, information and views do not see themselves as journalists at all.

Take the 1,225 photographs that have just been submitted by listeners to the Today programme, as reported by its editor Ceri Thomas on the BBC's new The Editors page - all pictures of dogs.

"It was e-mail number 1,226 on the same topic which finally did it for me" he wrote.

"The other 1,225 had pictures attached - dogs in prams, dogs in clothes - but this one contained a new feature - a link to the dog's own website."

But frivolous though that use of the new technology may be, the next time there is a bombing or a fire or a flood - or a big topic for debate - the public will be sending in its material, banging on the BBC's digital door.

See footage caught on camera by eyewitnesses

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