Rodney King And The Birth Of Citizen Journalism

Just past midnight on March 3, 1991, a Los Angeles man named George Holliday was awoken by police sirens.

Curious about the noise, Holliday grabbed his “clunky Sony Handycam” and stepped out on his balcony, according to the Los Angeles Times. The nine minutes of videotape he proceeded to capture that night changed the world.

He recorded the indelible images of white police officers beating an unarmed black motorist named Rodney King. According to Wikipedia, Holliday “contacted the police about a videotape of the incident but was dismissed. He then went to KTLA television with his videotape.”

The video, which aired thousands of times, spawned deep anger inside L.A.’s black neighborhoods. Local residents watched the resulting criminal case against the four white LAPD officers closely. On April 29, 1992, the four officers were acquitted of assault, sparking a week of rioting in Los Angeles that resulted in 53 deaths and more than 2,300 injuries.

Rodney King died yesterday at 47.

I was a college freshman when the beating occurred and remember how shocked we were not only by the brutal beating, but by how one random man’s videotape was responsible for the world learning about the story.

It’s difficult today to remember a time when every citizen wasn’t armed with a smartphone containing a built-in video camera. Holliday largely ushered in an era of citizen journalism in which everyday people armed with video cameras perform the functions once performed solely by “professional” reporters. (Yes, Abraham Zapruder’s famous tape of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination could also be considered citizen journalism, but cameras then were mostly purchased by hobbyists, not the broader public).

A still image of the Rodney King beating from George Holliday’s camera

Today, we’re well aware that anyone with a camera can suddenly become a journalist. It’s common to see citizen journalists provide the first bloody pictures of national revolution, broadcast the first images from a school shooting, or conduct an ambush interview with a politician.

The legacy of citizen journalism that Holliday’s video helped leave behind is mixed. On the plus side, it allows ordinary people to expose bad behavior or share images the world would otherwise never see. On the downside, it complicates communications for people who would otherwise be able to communicate more freely.

As an example, the number one question I hear from executives today about social media is this: “How can I prevent employees from secretly recording staff meetings and uploading the audio or video to YouTube?”

The answer, in short, is that they can’t.

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