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The Accidental Journalist

As news of terrorist attacks on London's transportation system unfolded in the early-morning hours last Thursday, American TV networks marshaled their resources. London correspondents raced to the scene, and producers in New York combed through feeds from British networks. But the most dramatic footage came from the eyewitnesses themselves—via video and still images captured on their cellphones.

The London attacks were the first major news story in which networks made use of cellphone video, say news executives. While the short, grainy clips hardly compare to the crystal-clear images from the networks' cameras, the front-row footage is hard to duplicate. Eyewitness footage of images such as the darkened subway cars, their windows kicked out as passengers gasped for air and people running toward the double-decker bus torn apart by a bomb provides a powerful connection to the scene.

“The quality is not great, but it is good enough to make out what was happening down there,” says Marcy McGinnis, CBS News' senior VP of news coverage.

Millions of stringers

News organizations have for years solicited pictures and video from eyewitnesses to natural disasters, plane crashes and crimes. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia last December, many tourists grabbed their camcorders, providing intimate images of the giant waves overwhelming beaches and hotels. Now technology is making news coverage more widely available and immediate. With video-enabled cellphones, millions of Americans are potential stringers for the news networks.

In about a decade, cellphones have evolved from bulky contraptions to tiny, sleek devices that stream video, record voices and even capture around 15 seconds of moving video. Camera phones—particularly those with video capability—are relatively new technology (video-recording functionality appeared in the U.S. about a year ago), but the legions are growing. Globally, 68 million camera phones were sold last year, up 30% from 2003, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. Over three-quarters of new Motorola phones shipped today are camera-equipped, and Merrill Lynch estimates that more than two-thirds of new cellphones purchased are camera phones.

After the July 7 attacks, Britain's Sky News, ITN and Associated Press Television News (APTN) supplied most of the early cellphone video. The BBC (which outfits some reporters with cellphones capable of recording video), Sky News and ITN ran crawls on the screen, asking viewers to send in pictures and video. U.S. networks, including CNN and NBC, posted messages on their Web sites requesting users' e-mail in their footage. London-based Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for APTN, says its reporters asked people on the street for images and video. The first cellphone video hit the airwaves in London by early afternoon.

“It is standard-operating-practice to chase amateur video, because no matter how quickly we get to the scene, we can't get footage as quickly as those who are already there,” MacIntyre says.

He says APTN didn't pay for any of the three cellphone videos it used, but did pay $250 for footage shot with a video camera. Images were still coming in from cellphones on Friday morning, but with a tragic twist. “We started receiving e-mails with JPEG photos of people who are missing,” says MacIntyre.

Text Messages, Too

Other advanced technologies bolstered media coverage. BBC Radio asked listeners to text message their observations, and the anchors read messages on-air. Select images from London's system of closed-circuit television and security cameras—among the most sophisticated in the world—were made available to the media. On World News Tonight, ABC flashed a picture of the bombed bus captured by a nearby security camera just moments after the attack. That morning, NBC and MSNBC sent out 25 video clips from the bombings on their mobile video-news service, which has about 500,000 subscribers.

Across the dial, network response was swift and coverage was deep. Many correspondents were already in Scotland covering President Bush's visit to the G-8 economic summit. CBS News correspondent Sheila McVicar was in central London working on another story when the blasts occurred, while NBC News' Stone Phillips, in town to interview actress Sharon Stone, quickly went to work on a Dateline special slated to air last Friday.

But the most dramatic footage came from ordinary Londoners, who by virtue of their camera phones were suddenly turned into reporters.

Coincidentally, on the same day that cellphone video leapt to the fore, national and regional cellular-service providers in the U.S. made it easier to send pictures and videos via MMS or multimedia messaging services to subscribers that use a different carrier.

“People understand this video is not a professional camera, but it has an immediacy and vitality that is undeniable,” says NBC News President Neal Shapiro. “This is a glimpse of the future.”