Training & Education

The Evolution of Citizen Journalism in Emergency Management

Recent events suggest that the tools used by citizen journalists play an increasingly crucial role in preparedness for and emergency response to disasters.

No longer in its infancy, our understanding of the role of citizen journalism in the news production process is, although debated, well established. However, citizen journalists are no longer simply playing a role in contributing to the news, but are also playing an important role in contributing to emergency management. Some studies have shown that citizen photojournalism plays a role in communicating information during a crisis; others have discussed the role of Wikinews during the reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in the use of citizen journalism material to inform others, and their contributions and presence is being harvested to complement the management of a crisis.

Crisis Reporting

The evolution of digital technology has provided citizens with the tools to capture their own accounts of events, be it images, video or simply their own insights and share it with audiences across the globe. While citizens are able to self-publish their own accounts, such content by the public is increasingly sought out by the professional news industry, with journalists actively seeking citizen journalist content to share via their own networks.

Examples of citizen journalism include eyewitness statements, a survivor's diary, pictures, videos and detailed accounts. In many cases, activities of citizen journalists have been commended, but in others, have been criticized when citizen journalists have placed themselves in danger while trying to record evidence (or potentially ignoring their civic duty to lend aid to others). Moreover, such criticisms have been noteworthy in situations where security was an ongoing concern, including the 2005 London bombings, the Mumbai attacks, and the August 2012 social media reports of attacks by Muslims against North Eastern migrants in India, which caused panic to spread.

More recently, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, The Guardian examined the diffusion of fake images on Twitter to depict events. Despite widespread discussion of fake images within the news media, the analysis of 50 images suggested that although some accounts were considered “fake”, of the images collected, nine were identified as being questionable and two were confirmed as being fake. Concern was also expressed in relation to the spread of rumors via those using social networking sites. For instance, during Sandy, rumours went viral that FEMA was giving out $300 worth of free food stamps for those that had lost power, forcing the agency to initiate a rumor control mechanism.

In the light of this evolution, and the associated challenges, there have been further developments by news organizations developing tools, apps and techniques, such as CNN’s iReport and the newly launched GuardianWitness. It’s possible to see that material from citizen journalists is used within the production of news today, and is welcomed (by some), but that’s not to say that it is without its problems, forcing news organizations to enhance their abilities to verify content prior to publication. Crucially, output from citizen journalists is not simply useful for the construction of news, but can also play a role in crisis management.

Citizen Journalism: Crisis Reporting to Crisis Management

The study of “crisis informatics” illustrates the important role that citizens are playing in contributing to the different stages of crisis management, planning, warning and responding. Recent events, including the tornado in Oklahoma and the Boston attacks, suggest that the tools used by citizen journalists play an increasingly crucial role in preparedness for and emergency response to disasters. Technologies such as crowdsourcing, remote sensing and data mining offer new opportunities to enable officials and first responders the ability to gather information and optimize their response efforts. At the same time, social media can potentially enable citizens to more quickly share information with each other and with emergency officials.

Crucially, tools alone are not enough, they have to be used by citizens for their full potential to materialize.

There are a multitude of examples on how emergency officials (including government agencies and aid organizations) may successfully use new technologies, and the incorporation of citizen journalists to increase the efficiency of emergency response efforts. Such activities will enable crisis managers to bridge the gap between the “official” and the “civilian” efforts in emergency preparedness and response.

The tools for participating in citizen journalism are not restricted to social media, as recently seen with the terror attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya, instead, there are multiple tools that enable citizens to capture and transmit information. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, traditional disaster response systems were initially employed by response organizations to share information between each other, however, the system was not able to take into consideration localized information coming from the Haitian community. The subsequent use of crowdsourcing, via open-sourced crisis-mapping software Ushahidi, enabled response organizations to communicate with Haitians to “capture, organize and share critical information coming directly from Haitians,” according to a United States Institute of Peace Special Report. This sharing of information greatly benefited response efforts and enabled citizens to be actively involved in the response stage of the disaster.

Whereas the conventional approach to emergency response often favors a top-down coordination of search-and-rescue operations, these examples suggest that the successful use of new information technologies will often require officials to assume other roles, such as facilitator of decentralized networks, or require that they use crowd-sourced information for coordination purposes.

In a study of the 2007 California wildfires, social media applications were found to be of use to generate a citizen journalism platform for the dissemination of local information. These activities by members of the public provided essential information, and communicated relevant and up-to-date emergency-related information to community members and emergency responders. The study also revealed the reception of the information by emergency responders, noting that while some responders were displeased with the posted raw information, they also acknowledged the helpful role of citizens in “meeting the voluminous requests for ongoing information,” according to a report in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. Thus decision-makers might proactively integrate content from citizens into their crisis management activities.

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