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Counting Bodies, One Click at at Time


As I trudged through the late-afternoon heat Friday, into an urban conflict zone between the Thai military and anti-government protesters, I encountered this man on a pedestrian bridge.

Several distressed Thai women led him by the arm to meet me, insisting that I see a morbid image on his point-and-shoot digital camera.

It was a protester's corpse, they explained. Troops had shot the protester in the direction I was heading. As the dead man lay still on the pavement, blood seeping around his mouth and nostrils, this man fumbled for his camera, snapped a photo and then ran to safety.

The instinct to digitally document every beating, every grenade blast, every corpse is pervasive in Bangkok. Within hours of each new clash, footage is circulated on Facebook, Twitter and Thai-language Web boards.

Bangkok is now experiencing the same phenomenon of modern conflict we've seen in the recent Iran riots. As the unrest drags on, anyone with a web connection can access a real-time deluge of horrifying images. 

In the last 48 hours, which have seen a still-rising death roll of 22 people, it's been almost too much to keep up with. In the last eight hours, Twitter feeds have led us to this seemingly dead medical volunteer and this man bleeding alone on the sidewalk. These are amateur shots: news wires such as AFP offer this unsettling video of dead man being lifted off the sidewalk by fellow protesters. (WARNING: These are very graphic images.)

And after I filmed the scene of a clash Friday, I too was overwhelmed by a need to race home and edit video for the web with shaky hands — all while fielding questions from editors.

This is the messy, fast-paced style of conflict coverage we must grow to expect. The pros? It's getting pretty damn difficult for troops, police or protesters to get away with anything. Novels such as "1984" warned us of an intrusive, ever-watching government eye. What George Orwell didn't foresee was thousands of little camera phone eyes peering back.

The cons? It's equally difficult to extract truth from a din of screaming tweets. Hysterical non-journalists — and even some well-meaning professionals — are constantly sounding false alarms. There are now more fire drills than real fires.

A friend and fellow Bangkok journalist Newley Purnell succinctly summed up this challenge in an interview: "If someone tweets, "Gun shots on Main Street!" it's obviously important to view this critically — who or what is their source? Are they saying they saw someone fire a gun? Did someone tell them there were gun shots ... what if the sound was merely firecrackers?"

You'll hardly find anyone arguing that the old model — dead trees inked with day-old news thrown on doorsteps — is realistic in 2010. Digital journalism is clearly superior and my own embrace of it has done wonders for my career. (I signed up for Twitter (@BKKApologist) just months ago and, now, I don't know how I could have covered this unrest without it.)

But, really, how do I know that the bloodied man on that guy's camera really died hours before on the street I was standing on?

This amateurization of news — made possible by the web — has a lot to offer for conflict coverage. The more information to process, the better. But we journalists will need more and more old-fashioned "trust no one" news sense if we want to separate our lot from millions of bystanders with camera phones.