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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paul Pritchard: one man's bid to show the truth

October 29, 2009
Times Colonist

If not for Paul Pritchard, the world would likely never have known what really happened to Robert Dziekanski when he landed at Vancouver International Airport two years ago.

There would have been no Braidwood inquiry. No changes to the rules around police Taser use. No answers for the Polish immigrant's family.

It is a remarkable series of events set in motion by one man with a camera. That makes Pritchard, of Victoria, an entirely appropriate recipient of the first citizen journalism award given by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression this week.

It's not just that Pritchard grabbed his digital camera and began recording. Or that he continued when four RCMP officers arrived, even after security staff, for no legitimate reason, told him to stop.

Pritchard also gave the recording to the RCMP that night to help them with their investigation. They promised to return it in 48 hours. And when they refused to return or release the recording, Pritchard hired a lawyer and successfully fought the secrecy. Three weeks after Dziekanski's death, people could watch the horrifying images and form their own judgments.

If not for that evidence, the four officers' statements -- that they tried to calm Dziekanski; that he came at them screaming, swinging an object; that the Taser didn't knock him down so they had to wrestle him to the ground -- might have been believed. None was true.

It's appropriate that the first citizen journalism award has been bestowed by members of the mainstream media, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

There are some who suggest that citizen journalism -- which occurs when ordinary citizens collect and disseminate information -- and traditional journalism are mutually exclusive. That is not true.

Traditional journalists are generally trained in ethical issues and screened before being hired. Decisions are made by several experienced people. Stories are edited, facts questioned. And there is accountability, through the newspaper's own checks and balances and institutions such as the B.C. Press Council.

Citizen journalists operate in a different world. Anyone can report anything, and can likely find a credulous audience, as the bizarre online misinformation floating from e-mail inbox to inbox around the world shows.

On the positive side, there are more citizens than there are journalists in even the largest news organization. Instead of 100 reporters trying to cover events in a community, there are thousands. Citizen journalists can focus on neighbourhood issues and bring expertise to specific topics. And increasingly, mainstream journalists look to citizen journalists for eyewitness reporting or specialized knowledge on topics in the news.

Most important, both are predicated on the assumption that there is an involved public, interested in information and capable of forming judgments on what is reported.

Pritchard was interviewed about the award by CBC Radio. He wonders whether, instead of grabbing his camera, he could have found a way into the secure area to talk to Dziekanski before the RCMP arrived.

"If I feel I did something wrong, or feel I didn't do enough, I think the effort I put in afterwards is enough for me to live with that," Pritchard said. It is a thoughtful response from an ethical man. And a fine recipient of a citizen journalism award, whose actions provided Canadians -- and the world -- with important truths.

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