Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Many Citizen Journalists Can You Spot in This Picture?

The American Statesman of Austin, TX ran this article on how social media is transforming journalism, using the Austin plane crash as an example. A few things I would like to point out.

Look closely at the photo of the burning building with the crowd of onlookers standing in front. Enlarge the photo and look closely at what those people are doing. My colleague at O'Brien's Tim O'Leary pointed this out to me, because we used a similar photo from the same twitterer, Jeff Lake, as part of the City's communication response. What are they doing? They are being citizen journalists! They are snapping photos, shooting videos, talking on their cellphones, tweeting, texting, microblogging, communicating in a multitude of ways with multiple audiences. They are sharing real-time information about the event. Is the fire burning? What are the rescue crews doing? Are they taking any bodies out? Are their people trapped inside screaming from the windows? These people are the frontline of journalism today. This is where the news media gets its news. And this is how most of us get our news now or will soon get it, directly through info sharing channels on the internet, circumventing the media entirely.

More than citizen journalists, these people are now part of the response team. I don't think most response leaders or planners understand this yet. But much of the valuable information needed by Incident Commanders to make intelligent resource and action decisions is available first and foremost from those nearest the scene and in a position to observe and share. I will be making presentations in the near future on how response management must change forever in the information gathering process because of what you see in that picture.

The same is happening in the big disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The richness of information available from social media (use twitscoop and enter Deepwater Horizon or any other related search term) has been far greater than that coming from the JIC. While the pace of info from the JIC has improved significantly in the last few days, initially if anyone wanted to get good updates about the event in real time, social media was the only way. The event JIC site is now at You can also see how BP is incorporating the JIC information in their corporate site.

The primary point of the Statesman article is how social media, Twitter in particular, has changed how news coverage is done. This brief paragraph describes it perfectly:
In the newsroom, we first heard about the incident on Twitter. We marshaled our resources right away to cover what was clearly going to be a big story. As our staff members worked the phones and drove to the scene, I headed to Twitter. I asked the 20,000-plus followers of our main Statesman account whether they had seen anything, and I asked witnesses to call our reporter Tony Plohetski. Several people called Tony, and their accounts made it into the online and print versions of our stories. I also asked for photos, and they came pouring in. Twitter users, armed with camera-equipped mobile phones, were there. They responded by sending me dozens of photos from the scene. We were posting these user photos on our site as fast as I could get them.

If every Incident Command and PIO read this and read it and read it, it might sink in that their world has changed. The PIO cannot control the information--because there is relatively little private to the response that won't be known outside the response and shared with the world well before a press release gets issued or a press conference is called. Old news is of no interest to the media or its readers/viewers. One PIO told me that the questions the media were posing in a major event were not what was going on--because they had all that well before the interview--they just wanted to know what role the agency played in the response. A minor issue in the bigger story. No control, only participation. And the participation is relevant only if it is timely. Be slow and you might as well go away. And slow is defined in Twitter terms, not in the the old way of thinking of news cycles.

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