Journalists and editors are expected to be prepared to cover the unexpected disasters with a high level of professionalism. Yet this task, already difficult under the pressure of chaos, is increasingly challenging with the introduction of social media. Rina Tsubaki, the Project Manger of a new initiative called "Emergency Journalism," details how new tools can be used to leverage crowdsourced information.
GEN: What are the top innovative tools and applications which were created to specifically fulfill the needs of disaster reporting?
Rina Tsubaki: While challenges prevail in the verification process, a number of tools can be useful for disaster news gathering. For instance, there are Ushahidi maps that visualize crowd information gathered through SMS, Twitter and emails for just about every emergency situation. Additionally, a number of maps are supported by networks of trained volunteers from all over the world, contributing real-time crisis mapping operations. The Standby Task Force (SBTF) is a good example of this.
CrowdFlower translates text messages for the purpose of connecting aid workers and people in need. A recent example is “Uganda Speaks” which was launched by Al Jazeera in partnership with Usahidi and FrontlineSMS in the rise of Kony campaign.
Since the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Google launched Crisis Response which assembles critical information varying from emergency telephone numbers to the links to official sources. The initiative makes use of the power of the crowd, and implements Person Finder which is an open crowd-dependent database where users can look for updates about missing persons in the aftermath of a disaster.
These are just a few examples of tools that can be used as the potential database for news gathering. But in order to avoid spreading misleading information, journalists need to be the ones curating and filtering online content in emergency situations. The role of journalists is crucial in digital age, more than ever before.
What are the major trends in emergency reporting?
Emergency preparedness varies among newsrooms according to the size and location of the media agencies. In countries like Japan, where a number of natural disasters frequently occur, newsrooms are usually equipped with trained newscasters who follow the standard procedures to cover live events. For instance, they have the skills and tools to cover the early warning systems for earthquakes, and follow the “alerts” before and after an earthquake hits the region. Other places like in the Netherlands where more resilience is seen in water related emergencies, newsrooms are not prepared for live coverage on other disasters like earthquakes.
Although disaster preparedness differs among newsrooms, the fact is that everyone has the access to information that circulates on the Internet. Crowds have become one of the primary sources of information, and contribute significantly to journalists' news gathering and humanitarian response efforts. Journalists can surely make use of these new contents, but it is rarely practiced at large for emergency situation.
If there are significance differences in trends of emergency reporting depending on the circumstance, how should journalists prepare for the unexpected in man-created and natural disasters? Is it best to rely on regional trends?
What makes journalism a profession, in my opinion, is having expertise in local politics, history, economy, cultures, geography, environment and other trends when covering the regions being affected by both man-made and natural disasters. It is also crucial for journalists to be familiar with the level of disaster preparedness of the country in question, and how both international, national and local aid agencies work hand in hand.
Under normal circumstances, citizens’ journalism is a controversial subject in the industry. In a crisis, how should journalist incorporate the first responses they receive on the ground while still maintaining a level of professionalism? Do you have specific examples of how these trends are successfully implemented?
Despite the debate whether we can consider citizens as “journalists” or rather should frame information coming from the general public as “user-generated content”, it is undeniable that journalists should make use of social media. When reporting sudden and unexpected incidents, journalists should ask the right questions and verify information from the crowd.
One of the best practices was demonstrated by Andy Carvin from the National Public Radio in Washington, DC during the Arab Spring. By interrogating sources on Twitter, he proved social media can be a data bank for news gathering. The positive side of social media is that on many occasions there are self-correction mechanisms, where people tend to let others know when they find something wrong. Alternatively, journalists need to be active and always check who and where the sources are from, and disclose what they do not know openly.
This does not imply social media will replace professional newsrooms, as there are a number of rumors circulating in emergency situations. On the contrary, journalists are urged to be available on social media, acting as “curators” who filter false information. Hence, crowdsourced information should be considered as an alternative resource that journalists can tap into when gaps in the story need to be filled.
The role of journalists in verifying crowd-sourced information is enhanced by a network of trusted sources. If journalists have an existing network that supports them in disaster coverage well before the incident happens, verification process becomes much faster and easier. American Public Media, for instance, created Public Insight Network where approximately 170,000 volunteer sources help 66 newsrooms crowdsource personal stories. BBC’s User-Generated Content (UGC) Hub which was launched in 2009 is another best practice, as they make use of local partner media agencies to verify crowdsourced information.
Finally, do you have any words of advice to the Global Editors Network's editorial community who are interesting in developing a disaster reporting strategy in their respective newsrooms?
There is no single “solution” for disaster reporting strategy in newsrooms, as every disaster is different in nature. The type of emergency situation will define how journalists carry out their reporting activities.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, new information is made available by the citizens, and journalists can benefit from tools that aggregate this content. This is the reason why the European Journalism Centre (EJC) is organizing a session entitled “Maps, the Power of the Crowd & Big Data Verification” on 17 September at the PICNIC Festival in Amsterdam (hashtag #emjo). The event will investigate the changing ownership in society and media in digital age, the advantages and limitations of crisis mapping, and the role of journalists in verifying crowd sourced information in disaster situation.
The materials will be available on the new Emergency Journalism website which was recently launched. The website brings together relevant news and resources for media professionals reporting in volatile situations. The website supports media coverage of emergencies, such as natural disasters and political conflicts, by focusing on tools that use up-to-date digital technology ranging from content curation tools to multilayered live maps.
By focusing on this theme, the Centre hopes to allow the journalism industry to fully benefit from new technologies in emergency coverage, and aims to empower journalists to become the “guardians” of information on social media platforms.
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