Long Island University gave out its prestigious George Polk Awards today. Among the winners: the New York Times' David Rohde, 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft, and the anonymous person who recorded the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan on a cellphone.
One of these things is not like the others. The recording and uploading of Neda's death (she's become known by her first name) was an act of heroism, and the video became an iconic testament to the brutality of the Iranian regime that killed her. But it was literally the product of someone standing there with a cell phone. It is distinguished from, say, everything else on YouTube not by the thought, or planning, or talent that went into producing it but by the significance of the event that it chronicles. And though we don't know who made it, it's safe to assume that it was a bystander—not someone who inserted themselves into the protest with the intention of telling the world about what they saw, but someone who happened to be there and had the presence of mind to pull out his or her phone.
The question of whether or not the video qualifies as "journalism" doesn't really matter—it exists, it's a document. Someone made it and now everyone can see it. Maybe it's journalism, maybe it's "citizen journalism," maybe it's just a video. But when you start handing out awards that were created to "honor special achievement in journalism" with an emphasis on "investigative and enterprise work that is original, requires digging and resourcefulness and brings results" to works that consist of finding yourself next to a horrible thing and pulling your camera phone out of your pocket—well, what's the point of calling anything journalism anymore?
There isn't one! But that's claim that you expect to hear from folks who celebrate the deprofessionalization of the news media and increased unmediated access to mass communications technology. When it comes from the proprietors of a 61-year-old award that's long served as part of an institutional infrastructure that vests control of the news environment to a cloistered caste of pedigreed journalists, it's kind of confusing. Self-undermining, even.
It seems that what's really happening is that the Polk judges—aside from wanting to draw attention to the atrocities of the Iranian leadership—are honoring serendipity. The Neda video is valuable because it's the only record of the murder and the most graphic record of the regime's violence. But that value derives not from the videographer's efforts, or even bravery. It derives from the fact that there's no other video of it. If the video had come from, say, a nearby surveillance camera rather than a cell phone, it would be just as valuable. But who would get the Polk?