Rodney King found dead at 47; catalyst for modern citizen journalism

While King's name will forever be tied to police brutality, race relations and riots, his beating by police served as a critically important catalyst for the rise of citizen journalism. Photo:

SAN DIEGO, June 17, 2012 – The flashpoint at the center of the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago has died, apparently due to drowning.

According to news reports, Rodney King, 47, was found at the bottom of the swimming pool at his home in Rialto, California about 5:25 a.m. by his fiancée. She called 911, but paramedics were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m. Police say there appears to be no sign of foul play and the incident will be investigated as a drowning, including an autopsy.

Rodney King in 2011. Photo: Associated Press.

King’s name will be forever tied to the racially fueled riots in Los Angeles that began on April 29, 1992 following the acquittal of four white Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating King after a traffic stop and lasted six days. It created a national conversation that is still ongoing in this country about race relations, law enforcement excesses, substance abuse, and a dozen other topics – including the rise of citizen journalism.

In 2012, cameras are being pointed at everything that occurs in our daily lives, posted to Twitter and Facebook in an instant and shared with the world.

But on March 3, 1991, few people would have immediately thought to grab a video camera in the middle of the night and shoot what was going on outside their apartment door after midnight, much less share it with anyone.

Plumbing salesman George Holliday did. He came outside after hearing loud voices, saw the incident in progress, and went back inside to get his camera. His 12 minutes of videotape captured the incident. In an interview with the British newspaper The Sun, Holliday said he and his wife reviewed the videotape, and knew it was important. But they weren’t sure what to do about it.

The next day, they went to Los Angeles television station KTLA with the tape, and handed it over. The news director, Warren Cereghino, said Holliday didn’t ask for any money at the time. “He just wanted it to be seen.” He was eventually paid $500, and KTLA shared the video with CNN. The station broadcast about two minutes of the video the following evening on the news.

George Holliday’s videotape of the Rodney King beating became a major milestone in the rise of citizen journalism. Photo: George Holliday Video/KTLA.

We know now how the King story unfolded. Four officers were arrested and charged with King’s beating. They were acquitted by a jury a year later, sparking six days of rioting by angry mobs in the streets of Los Angeles.

Holliday later sued other stations for copyright infringement, claiming he had no idea the video would be used elsewhere. His federal lawsuit was dismissed in 1993 by a judge, saying that he had indeed granted permission for KTLA to both air and share the video; and that it fell both under “fair use” and First Amendment protection permitting the airing of “certain works of great importance to democratic debate.”

A second milestone act of citizen journalism took place during the riots, showing how the movement had grown in just one year. Timothy Goldman made his way through the streets of Los Angeles during the riots, videotaping numerous scenes of violence. He came upon the vicious beating of truck driver Reginald Denny, who was pulled out of the cab of his truck by several men and pummeled to the brink of death, including being stuck in the head with a brick. Goldman stood on top of a truck and videotaped the scene.

Goldman, who was unemployed, did not give away his video. He didn’t sell it either. He partnered with University of California journalism student Gregory Sandoval, who was also out videotaping riot scenes and crossed paths with Goldman. Sandoval advised Goldman not to sell his video outright, and offered to be his agent. The two instead sold broadcast rights to the video, in essence “renting” the video for limited use. The pair made tens of thousands of dollars.

Media law scholars speculated on how the Holliday and Goldman tapes might change the definition of journalism and test shield laws, or even the First Amendment itself. Attorney Rex Heinke said in an interview at the time in 1992, “Very broadly, the question is going to be, ‘Is the person asserting protection of the shield law a journalist or just a member of the public? As the technology has evolved so that the average person can afford videocameras, the question as to where you draw the line has become blurred.” 

Heinke was more right than he could have imagined. Fast-forward 20 years. Within moments of any major news event, photos and videos of natural disasters, crimes, accidents, rescues and political incidents are posted to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Major news organizations encourage their audience to become part of their “I-Witness” teams and send in photos and video.

This photo of US Airways Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River was posted via Twitpic just minutes after the aircraft landed by Janis Krums, a passenger aboard a ferry.

Janis Krums posted this photo of the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 on January 15, 2009 via Twitpic minutes after it happened, tweeting: “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” It has become our natural reaction to freely share the news going on in front of us. Krums’ iPhone shot was copied and shown by media around the world, yet he earned nothing.

But when anyone takes a photo, or records audio or video, the act grants copyright protection immediately to the creator. Sharing on social media doesn’t in theory limit the right to protect your own content and get paid for it. But good luck putting the genie back in the bottle after your knee-jerk reaction to post your work.

And if you use a service such as Twitpic like Krums did, read the ever-changing fine print. Most of these services retain the right to resell any images or video that you upload and post on its servers. Individuals may not realize they have something of value when witnessing a breaking news event, but they should give thought like Goldman did with the Denny video to selling off image rights to news organizations, or find someone to handle it for them.

News organizations will argue they can use photos or video under First Amendment protection of fair use, but this still continues to be the topic of arguments from the classroom to the newsroom to the courts. It is far from settled.
The law still wrestles with issues originally raised in the Rodney King case. As reported in this column in September 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that a private citizen’s right to videotape police officers performing their duties in a public space is “unambiguously” protected by the First Amendment.  (Glik v. Cunniffe, et al., No. 10-1764 (1st Cir. Aug. 26, 2011). Even so, a dozen states still claim it is illegal to videotape law enforcement officers without their consent under wiretapping laws even if they are performing their duties in public view.

Activists and organizations have embraced citizen journalism in a purposeful way, taking news production into their own hands and bypassing the media and its value judgments entirely, broadcasting live via Ustream and their own websites. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement to KONY 2012, Andrew Brietbart and ACORN, there is no need to wait for the news media to disseminate information.

So while much of the world will forever connect Rodney King to race relations or law enforcement abuses, the more lasting and perhaps ultimately the more powerful legacy is the way technology is now being used to produce and distribute news and information in modern society.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.


Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities at” when quoting from or linking to this story.   


Copyright © 2012 by Falcon Valley Group

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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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