Revolution at the Capitol

Congress was in recess and a shooter was in the Capitol when the revolution occurred. A potentially serious crisis was reported in real time by ordinary people wielding smartphones.

A lockdown prevented news crews from wheeling in cameras to the Capitol Monday afternoon as a lone gunman began firing shots in the Capitol Visitor Center. News organizations improvised by relying on video shot with smartphones by tourists and Capitol staffers who were “sheltered in place” as police closed in and arrested the man. Despite the lack of media access, the result was robust, timely reporting with footage directly from the scene. D.C. Police even joined the revolution by posting their own real-time updates on Twitter.

OK, we know what you’re thinking: The use of smartphones for real-time newsgathering had already become common over the past several years. But believe it or not, the situation highlights many continuing shifts in how we gather, report and consume the news today.

•  Not that long ago, video equipment was large, obtrusive and less conducive to real-time reporting. Lugging around bulky cameras, tripods and mics made it especially difficult for news crews to rush in to the scene of a crisis as police closed off access. Today, all of that equipment is often replaced by a single pocket-sized device that nearly two-thirds of Americans own and carry at just about all times of the day.  

•  Video cameras record images, but they aren’t organically connected to a news delivery channel. That’s never been a problem for smartphones.

•  Smartphones can capture video, transmit the footage quickly and provide access to social networks, blog sites and numerous other online platforms to report the news and add commentary. 

NBC correspondent Luke Russert tweeted about the Capitol lockdown and posted a picture of Capitol employees evacuating the building 30 minutes before the D.C. Police alerted the public to the incident. Meanwhile, MSNBC gave viewers a live-stream glimpse of the unfolding scene based on video shot by smartphones inside the Capitol. 

In essence, smartphones have turned average people into reporters. They can capture breaking news at any time and share it from anywhere with a signal.  

Instead of resenting the rise of citizen journalism, news organizations are embracing the growing trend as frontline reporting assistance because it can give them a scoop or at least a head start on covering a major story. After all, video shot on smartphones often has legitimacy that some news reporting lacks. 

Seeing smartphones in action at the Capitol, where most news is staged, underscores that the revolution of news coverage is in full swing. As news crews and citizen journalists alike embrace the omnipresence of smartphones, viewers will increasingly get more than press conferences and orchestrated events. They will get on-the-spot video and firsthand accounts of actual events that are shared widely across the Internet moments after they occur. This is nothing short of revolutionary.

While this revolution may not have changed attitudes toward the news media, it has changed the public’s perspective on newsgathering and the spread of information. Today, the news is less the detached reality it traditionally became over decades of nightly network broadcasts modeled on the style of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. Instead, it’s more like something you can view – or capture and share with the world – through the lens of your own smartphone.