Raw Awe: Citizen Journalists See Events From Readers’ Vantage Point

Ever look at a two-year-old studying a bug or a blade of grass with total amazement and feel envious for the sense of awe that too often has been drained from our fast-paced lives? You get down on your hands and knees, really look at that bug, and just as you’re starting to smile at the wonder … your cell phone chirps and you’re brought back to your frenzied reality.

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A talented and poetic citizen journalist can provide a similarly wonderful sense of awe before we are jolted back to the reality of the New York Times.

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This is not to diminish the importance of "real journalists" and the difficult work they do. An experienced, veteran journalist can sort through a complicated abstraction of facts and observations and make enough sense of it all to construct a tight story that hangs together as a reasonable snapshot of the complex reality. And do it all on deadline. We expect journalists to be dispassionate, objective mediators of mountains of information, relying on their experience as professionals who have “seen it all before.”

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But there are times when the veteran journalist’s stoic calm gets in the way of the reader’s need to be awed. Sometimes a cit-journo can better capture the uniqueness of a moment most of us never get to see.

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If you doubt that a blogger can present a more compelling narrative of a hard-news story than a strong, veteran writer, read two accounts of the gruesome Pickton murder trial unfoldingPickton_trial_from_cp_1 this week in Canada’s British Columbia. Rosie Dimano is a talented columnist for the Toronto Star. Her unblinking portrait in yesterday’s Star of accused serial killer Robert Pickton in his video testimony from a police interrogation five years ago is riveting and revealing. Dimano takes in and reports every discordant detail without flinching.

Canadian Press: sketch by Felicity Don.

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Laconic and leery, protesting his innocence of any crime, the man now accused of murdering 26 women was a grudging, stingy, but polite interview — alternately bored and befuddled — when interrogated by police on Feb. 23, 2002, the day after his arrest.

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He did not, he claimed, recognize any of the 48 missing women whose mug shots were displayed on a board for his scrutiny, Pickton taken through them methodically, one by one. But he did offer a running commentary: "She’s got a lazy eye … she’s pretty … I think I’ve seen her somewhere … she’s nice looking."

Trisha Baptie flinches. Just like you or I would if we were sitting in the courtroom as unimaginably gruesome events were described in horrific detail. As one of two citizen journalists covering the Pickton trial for orato, an electronic daily featuring some of the best first-person citizen journo accounts you’ll ever read, Baptie fights the urge to look away, to tune out, to run out of the room – just as the members of the jury struggle to bear it all. Just like you or I would, too.

As we were handed our court passes on that first day, I realized I was going to be sitting in the same courtroom as Robert Pickton for the first time. "I don’t want to" was my first thought; "I need to" was my second. I needed to because I needed to see if staring at him long enough, or some slight body movement would give me a clue about his guilt or innocence. It did not.

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Nothing could have prepared me for the first day of trial and listening to the Crown describe how heads of victims were cut in half, how bodies had been mutilated and other atrocities I will let other media report. It was a physical blow. Somehow the words spoken became a tangible thing that hit me and left me gasping for air — it left me reeling at the horror at what had been done to the women I used to work alongside on Vancouver’s streets.

Like the murder victims, Baptie at one time in her life was a prostitute. Her empathy is sincere; her vantage point is that of one of the victims brought back to life to stare at the accused. But she also writes from a reader’s perspective, ill at ease at the proceedings taking place, fighting an urge to vomit.

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The equal footing that the citizen journalist shares with the reader provides much of the awesome power of peer-to-peer media. We need professional journalists to moderate the complexities of the world, to distill it all into chewable pieces of news, just as we need professional barristers to follow established rules of law as they preside over messy disputes. In the courtroom the accused is entitled to a fair trial decided by a jury of his peers. And in our everyday world, the citizen journalist, taking in an event just as we would if we were there, is the peer we sometimes need to regain a lost sense of awe.

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- Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. Trisha Baptie says:

    Hello,
    i am the Trisha Baptie in the above mentioned article i must ask you to make a change the information that i am a prostitute when in fact i have been off the stroll for a number of years.

  2. Jon Harmon says:

    I’ll make the change now, Trisha. Please accept my apology and my compliments on your powerfully written accounts for orato.
    Your story yesterday about your conflicted feelings, and finally your new-found respect, for the police gives your readers unique insight:
    “How do you look evil in the face everyday and still function in society? We ask our police to be our first line of defense against criminals, yet I’m not really sure we truly ponder what it is we are asking them to do every day.”
    http://www.orato.com/node/1730/&page=1

  3. Cherlin says:

    Great work.

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