Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The telling of the disaster story ... a new era

There has been a significant amount of news coverage and traffic on social networks about the wildfires in the western U.S. Just look at some hashtags on Twitter: #utahwildfire and #highparkfire among others.

What has really jumped at me while I'm paying particular attention to this story (as Ontario normally has a very busy fire season in the summer) are the different ways the stories are being told by traditional media outlets and on social networks. What we see happening is a merging of the two.

I think the end result is better coverage. Here's why in my opinion:

  • while the traditional news storytelling usually offers a single "angle" (or point of view ..which is not bias ...) based on the reporters/editors experiences and outlook ... the stories told on social networks look at any incident through a myriad of angles or lenses ... and that's a good thing ...uniformity of opinion can be very detrimental is gathering an exact picture.
  • many traditional news organizations still have "deadline" ...this doesn't exist on social media ... it's continuous process ... which makes real-time crisis mapping such a valuable tool ...
The second key factor is that more and more news outfits are now "crowdsourcing" their news gathering operations. It doesn't matter whether they are major metropolitan newspapers or cable news networks, the trend is evident and unstoppable in an era of smaller journalistic staff and resources.
  • old time news stories often relied heavily on "official sources" ... with limited input from the people directly impacted by a disaster ...whereas social network give everyone a voice ... This is proving so valuable in telling the real, broader story ...that newspaper are doing it themselves.
  • Citizens are reporters ...  and all enterprising news organizations have to do is gather that info ... as seen here. So we have professional news outlets using social storytelling tools (Storify for example).
  • Crowdsourcing is therefore a "force multiplier" for the news business but challenges remain, mainly those dealing with info validation and verification and source attribution.
A third key observation is the use of crisis mapping by news organizations. The examples linked to above are all the results of info shared by people impacted or witnessing events and others analyzing the info and plotting it on a map. 

This easy visualization of the "social element" and the interactive functionality are at the heart of effective crisis mapping. Some key examples here:
A final observation is that with social convergence people can tell their own stories instantly ... edit and broadcast them ...This is not the end of traditional news organization but rather a culmination. 

The closing of a long loop where people get the info that their neighbours, families and friends think is important and relevant ... New business models are being introduced all the time to allow old-style news organizations to survive ... they won't all succeed but some will thrive.

The real question to me is this: if the media is adapting ...why not governments and emergency management agencies? Why is there still some resistance in accepting the wisdom of the crowd? It's changing though, and the wildfires are a good case in point.

We'll get to a truly integrated use of social media in emergency management ... one incident at a time ... the burning issue (pun intended) ...is what will be the threshold event (or events ...) and when will we get there ? 

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