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Laura Paull

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From Arab Spring to America Today, Social Media Enables Witness-Reporters

Posted: 09/14/11 06:40 PM ET

Last winter when I was teaching media courses at a community college, I had the good luck to have scheduled a class on the cinema of the Middle East. I had wanted to create such a class for some time, and decided that the winter of 2011 was the semester to begin. I initiated my young, sheltered Californians with the animated French-Iranian masterpiece, Persepolis; the next week I blew their little minds with the classic black and white drama about French colonialism in Algeria, The Battle of Algiers. And then: ka-boom, a poor Tunisian street vendor reached the limits of his endurance, set himself on fire, and the new North African and Middle Eastern liberation struggles -- today referred to as the Arab Spring -- were underway.

My carefully chosen textbooks went largely unread, while we read on Al-Jazeera English the incoming tweets from people in the streets of Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya; watching the swift crawl of updates, some of them from students the same age as mine, describing for the world the struggle for control of the streets and of their destinies. We read blogs updated hourly by professional reporters like the New York Times Nicholas Kristof as well as by local people. Before slipping in the DVD of the film we were scheduled to watch, we looked at cell phone videos and photos of protestors battling police and filling the public squares with their bold demands for an end to the old regimes. We listened to audio files by workers, professors, lawyers, housewives, teachers and others describing in vivid detail the reality "on the ground," which was often distorted by their government sources. Week after week, the sense of history-in-the-making riveted my students because the raw reportage of citizen journalists contained, for the most part, both passion and unimpeachable authority.

The experience also opened a path of understanding for them into the dense verbiage of the serious foreign correspondents -- print articles that they would have normally have passed over as inscrutable.

Some of the students in my class were journalism majors, and they told me that they now understood, for the first time, the true value of social media and the power of the sweaty little cell phone in their fists.

If only, some of them lamented naively, we had such important things going on here...in this country.

If only?

We may not (yet) have revolution in the streets. But with 46.2 million Americans living in poverty and a chain reaction of banking, housing, financial, employment and education crises underscored by debatable leadership and a decade of wartime spending pushing this nation to the brink of sustainability - do we really have to reiterate that the U.S. is in a crisis of its own?

When I was a journalism professor, I urged my students to tell the stories of the houses in their Modesto neighborhoods that were being shuttered, one after another, and of the people who were forced out of them. Now, as an editor for citizen journalism on The Huffington Post, I have the opportunity to invite people everywhere, of all ages and of every status, to tell the story of America as we attempt to carry on our electoral traditions in an atmosphere of social division and widespread despair.

Reporters do this too, of course. But do you see everything you know is going on, or want to read and hear about, in the daily news? Without the ground level contributions of regular people active in all levels of the political process, we will miss a good part of the enormous story of the 2012 elections. The power struggles and the personality contests; the small, important truths of local politics that only local people know; the institutional failures (and successes); the issues that elected officials are or are not responding to; the ways that different groups of citizens are organizing to defend their interests or exert their popular will; the candidates who can't seem to get mainstream media coverage to save their lives; the candidates who will twist the truth to get that coverage, or those votes.

These are your stories, and you have the right to report them -- in whatever ways you know how. Words are good; pictures are great; document scans, videos and tips can also contribute to the flow of public knowledge. As a former journalism professor, however, I will insist on accuracy and documentation.

So send your stories about the 2012 elections to offthebus@huffingtonpost.com. Or simply sign up as a willing contributor at www.offthebus.org, and when there is a big, national or regional story that The Huffington Post's citizen journalists are tackling, you'll be the first to know.

I know you're out there, waiting for just such a chance to get the news out from the streets. We want to give you the platform to do it -- as a citizen journalist.