Quake, tsunami reveal sweeping changes in mainstream and new media

Social media tools provide a wealth of information unavailable as recently as the 2004 tsunami.


When the news that an earthquake in Japan had launched a tsunami across the Pacific, NBC Nightly News’ Ann Curry turned to her medium of choice to warn people: Twitter.

“Tsunami expected in Los Angeles at 8:45 am WEST coast time,” Curry wrote. “Wake people on the coast to warn them.”

Seeing the tweet, Sree Sreenivasan—a digital media professor at Columbia University and a columnist and contributing editor at DNAinfo—phoned several cousins and a friend who live on the West Coast.

Social media has evolved into a powerful force in crises worldwide, enabling local newspapers to share readers’ photos, people around the world to view amateur video, and global media powerhouses like BBC and CNN to vastly expand their source and stringer networks.

In just a few years the landscape of disaster communications has been altered with use of digital resources like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and a vast army of mainstream media making use of crowd-sourcing techniques.

“Someone might say, ‘Well, [the phone call] didn’t have any impact,'” said Sreenivasan, who was assembling coverage of the earthquake on a Facebook site. “But if I were in New York and I was sleeping, I’d want to know there’s a tsunami coming my way.”

Major media reach out

Major media like BBC and The New York Times are reaching out to their audiences asking for stories of the earthquake. The Atlantic has posted a guide on how to follow coverage of the quake, while mainstream media bloggers use their online bullhorns to direct Web traffic.

Stories in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, out in the tsunami-swept Pacific, drew scores of comments as readers reported evacuations and exchanged information.

All of this media coverage provides a blizzard of information for those seeking to keep up—but also a global resource for understanding what’s going on. Sreenivasan contrasted the live video feeds with black-and-white store security-camera footage from Kobe in 1995.

“Today you have, live, hundreds of cameras watching the waves and watching the earthquake. Technology helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us much better than before.”

One of the big beneficiaries has been CNNiReport, which allows individuals to download an application and easily share video with the news network. CNN had the advantage of having done this kind of thing for some time, including offering an app that enables the uploading of video to its site via smartphone. This draws loyalty among users because they know it works, said Sreenivasan.

“So when I have video, would I send it to my local station or CNN?” he said.

Media warnings via Twitter

The BBC relayed tsunami warnings on Twitter soon after the first earthquake. And the organization—famous for its worldwide staff of journalists and stringers—posted updates pulled from the wires and feeds from correspondents.

One noted that the tsunami was on its way to the Chilean territory of Easter Island and was heading for that country’s mainland: “Some patients have been moved from low-lying hospitals, and there are plans to evacuate thousands of people from the coast if necessary.”

NPR’s Andy Carvin is one of the best sources to turn to during crises, as he not only calls attention to NPR stories but posts and retweets crises. He frantically waved off an interview request from Ragan.com. “Sorry I’m swamped,” he wrote. “Easier to just observe what I’m doing.”

NPR has been active on its website and Facebook as well, inviting comments from eyewitnesses and asking for links to photos and video. “Please let us know what you’ve been experiencing—and please stay safe,” said a link on its website.

One reader posted, “I’m currently in the middle of Washington state, but the father of my children is fishing in the Bering Sea….no news is good news, in my case, i guess. I cant even imagine the panic, the horror if it all. God speed to the departed, may you rest in peace.”

But some respondents evidently had trouble keeping their minds on the disaster. Carvin had to jump into the discussion and warn: “Folks, if you want to talk about defunding NPR, you’re more than welcome to do it on our discussion board. Otherwise, please try to be on topic. We’re trying to cover a natural disaster here and need your help.”

Preparing for calamity

Recognizing the role social media can play in emergencies, Facebook launched a Global Disaster Relief page after the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, said spokesman Andrew Noyes. It now has 500,000 fans. An update today read, “Groupon is supporting the work of International Medical Corps in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.”

Facebook offers “a communication channel into affected areas, connecting loved ones, and keeping families and friends up to speed on developments,” Noyes said. “Reporters have conducted entire interviews with those on the ground in disaster zones via Facebook Chat, and since traditional lines of communications are frequently unreliable after such occurrences, relief groups’ headquarters have used Facebook to communicate to personnel and volunteers in the field.”

Noyes notes that family members have been letting each other know they’re safe through Facebook, and Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, is publishing earthquake updates and dramatic photos on its Facebook page.

USGS’s Report an Earthquake feature

Even government agencies have been using the Internet in new ways. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a page full of information on temblors, and it asks, “Did You Feel It? Report an Earthquake,” making use of crowd-sourcing tactics that the National Weather Service and others employ.

The options for new media communications are vast—blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Tumbr, text-mesaging—but Sreenivasan uses Facebook because it allows comments that generate more response. “So it has that social effect that a blog doesn’t have,” he said.

With each crisis, the coverage and the amount of available information increase, Sreenivasan says.

“We learned from Haiti, and we learned from Chile, and we learned from the 2004 earthquake, and we learned from this,” he says. “There’s so much someone can do sitting far away without having to get on a plane and go somewhere to bring order to the chaos and the noise around us, and we’re seeing that in action.”

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