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January 15, 2005

Covering the Tsunami Disaster

Steve Outing of Poynter writes about how we can see the beginnings of journalism's future in the coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster:

Poynter Online - Taking Tsunami Coverage into Their Own Hands: Digital technologies -- the Web, e-mail, blogs, digital cameras, camera phones -- have evolved to the point where people on the scene share with professional journalists the ability to reach a wide audience, to tell and show the world what they saw and experienced. Where once disaster eyewitness photographs and videos turned up for widespread viewing only on news programs and in newspapers, today through e-mail, blogs, and a blogging infrastructure that spreads amateur news quickly and efficiently, they often find large audiences without the help or need of mainstream news outlets.

It doesn't have to be that way. Mainstream news organizations can and should do more to embrace citizen journalism, especially in instances like this where professional reporters aren't immediately on the scene during a widespread disaster, nor could traditional journalists ever hope to cover all there is of importance across a huge geographic space.

What's so striking about this story is the breadth of citizen coverage. Digital still and/or video cameras and photo phones were ubiquitous among many of the tourists who were visiting the Asian beaches devastated by the tsunami -- and to a lesser extent by local resident populations.... Historians will benefit from a wealth of material on the tsunamis of December 2004 -- not just the work of professional reporters and photojournalists, but mountains of digital text accounts, photos, and videos from eyewitnesses to the events, all shared on the Internet.

But let's not just let the historians benefit. Mainstream news organizations should consider the tsunami story as the seminal marker for introducing citizen journalism into the hallowed space that is professional journalism.... Dan Gillmor... says that the 2004 tsunamis represent the point at which a major change takes place in the media world.... After the tsunami, he thinks (and I hope) that the contributions of citizen reporters will at last be taken more seriously... perhaps next time we'll see a mix of citizen and professional reporting....

There are only a few examples of mainstream news organizations taking the tsunami citizen-journalism opportunity and running with it. BBC News Online, one of the pioneers among big media in soliciting citizen reporting, has done an outstanding job. The BBC site includes eyewitness tales from people in seven affected countries; readers' stories of reuniting with lost loved ones and friends; photos from survivors; and survivor amateur video.... The Guardian of the U.K. has aggregated some of the best tsunami writing from blogs around the world, and published a highlights page of some of the best work on its website....

Among most of the largest U.S. news websites, there's scant indication of the citizen-journalism opportunity, alas.... Gillmor says that what really should have been done by some mainstream news organization was to aggregate the best of the tsunami citizen reporting in one place. Point to or host survivor photos and videos. Link to blogs of survivor experiences, and excerpt the best and most powerful writing. Link to all the sites being used in trying to reunite loved ones with tsunami victims or locate their bodies. "We're still in the age when this type of news is, by definition, scattered and not aggregated," he says. Any online news outlet willing to take on this task would be performing a great public service.... Gillmor suggests a "blog-plus" approach, with a newest-items-first model for new citizen-reporting and tsunami-blog discoveries, and special features and sidebars out to the sides for highlights meant to stick around for a few days...

Posted by DeLong at January 15, 2005 06:18 PM

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Tracked on January 15, 2005 09:55 PM


'citizen-journalism' used to be called eye-witness reporting where the professional journalist would get their FACTS.
Now-a-days, if it ain't from journalists, PR firms or 'official spokespersons', it ain't news.

Posted by: linnen at January 15, 2005 07:34 PM

This kind of citizen journalism will work best when events happen in popular tropical vacation spots. If a disaster had happened the the farthest, most godawful reaches of Moldava, I doubt that the harvest would have been quite as rich.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 15, 2005 07:47 PM

Or we could see the efforts of citizen journalism be swamped by whatever.

About 3 1/2 years ago, a disaster one-fiftieth the size of the tsunami (in human costs at least) happened a few miles from where I live. It is still like pulling teeth trying to figure out what happened that day, you know? A First World, wired, open society. I don't chalk this up to secrecy, by the way (much), but to a squeamishness that disguises itself as 'respect for the dead'.

As for Moldova, Zizka, um. I know you followed recent events in Ukraine and Beslan.


Posted by: Carlos at January 15, 2005 08:42 PM

I don't think this is in any way as simple as it might appear or we might hope. For one thing, television networks will always edit for continuity and to fit a storyline or time limitation. Then there's their "you can't handle the truth" attitude to anything which they think might upset their delicate audience, along with legitimate considerations about what should be broadcast during general viewing times.

Also, a lot of people would expect to be paid for their "scoops", and I wonder about the ethics of this. And if professional journalists locate these sources, why would they share or pool them? Would there be bidding wars?

Then there's distortion - CNN looping small pieces of footage to match the lengths of their scripts, and creating an utterly false impression.

Sure, sharper viewers would be aware of this and make allowances, but I don't believe that people who voted for George Bush or watch Fox News are that sharp.

This is a tremendously important subject and I apologise for making such random comments, but perhaps others will be able to add more.

Posted by: Steve at January 15, 2005 09:06 PM

"Mainstream news organizations should consider the tsunami story as the seminal marker for introducing citizen journalism into the hallowed space that is professional journalism."

horse pie.

in america, professional journalism is not hallowed space.

the tsunami story is the Other happening to the Other. even the bbc and the guardian covered the western impact (thai beaches) in a more conventional way.

what would be nice would be if some third worlder was given a mike and a camera and living expenses and would cover America for four weeks -- let there be an artificial event for a hook. then have some artistes edit it down to an hour.

it would never air on the "news". it wouldn't sell deodorant.

and if you don't know who Frederick Wiseman is --- google or wiki him.

the hallowed space is for those bearing honest witness. "citizen journalism" takes place in citizen forums; eschatology and all that vis-a-vis forums 'n all.

i think one (1) journalist out of hundreds (if not thousands) resigned a press club membership to protest FNC's inclusion.

that, historians will note.

may the others choke on their jelly donuts./

Posted by: leouf at January 16, 2005 12:02 AM

Professional journalism is going to come under increasing pressure, at least for subjects where there is a large audience.

From the look of the pathetic and even maybe corrupt coverage of the Iraq war in US sources, US journalism is not prepared to meet that challenge. Remember what the situation was like back in April. Unless you looked at the British and other international sources you hadn't a clue how bad things were.

Posted by: sm at January 16, 2005 06:58 AM

journalism's future . . .

sooner or later some bright person in one of the large media organizations is going to re-discover a basic truth--no one buys a newspaper, magazine, etc. because it is fair and balanced.

And, smart people won't pay for propaganda rags, either, because saying its so doesn't make it so.

Any one who has read Noble House or about the Rothschilds knows the value of early, accurate information. For those who have forgotten, the best houses in Hong Kong were at the tops of the hills where one could see what sailing ships were arriving with what cargos. Being forewarned permitted one to sell out current stocks before prices dropped when the arriving ship docked.

The Rothchild's cursed the telegraph because it was faster then their internal message service and distributed information to everyone.

The problem with the Internet is that it has too much information. It gets old, day after day, searching--the trusted navigator is going to arise. My bet is the Financial Times, for the Navigator of the next 25 years must cover Europe, America, and Asia. Neither the WSJ nor NYT are up to either task.

Everyone, I hope, reads such at the first of each morning.

News has at least three different parts, two of which require human analysis. First, there are the raw facts--Tsunamia in Indian Ocean. Second, there are conclusions, when raw facts are confused. During the Civil War, for example, who won certain battles was often uncertain.

Last, there are the implications of the facts. GM reported that market share declined, again. One might infer that more price cuts are coming, or cheaper suppliers are going to be used, etc. Neither 2 or 3 should ever be, "fair and balanced." If I am a GM stockholder I don't want mush, "prices may decline or GM make outsource more." I want to know which, why, and how likely such will work.

Posted by: Moe Levine at January 17, 2005 10:24 AM

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