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Using Twitter to cover the Earthquake in Japan

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Imogen Crump Imogen Crump | 15:54 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

A screen grab of some of the tweets from people in Japan

In times of disaster, it can be incredibly difficult to establish a clear picture of what's happening and where. Traditional means of communication collapse. Telephone lines go down. Mobile signals are difficult. The lights go out.

And that's when Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites become the easiest, fastest and most reliable way of keeping in touch

When the 8.9 scale earthquake hit Japan at 5:46am (GMT) on Friday 11 March, it was impossible to judge the sheer scale of the disaster that would unfold over the coming days.


5 live Breakfast did their first hit within half an hour of going on air with the editor of the Japan Times. Details were still very sketchy - most of what we could find out came out of Tokyo, 250 miles away from the epicentre of the earthquake and it was very difficult to get any kind of clear picture of what was going on north of the capital.

By this stage, the tsunami warnings across the Pacific were in effect. The latest wires told us that the the bulk of the damage was in the north - in and around the town of Sendai. And people there turned to one of the few means of communication they had left to talk about what was happening. Sites like Twitter, that have a broadband connection, are a lifeline for many when mobile networks and landlines were useless.

For those of you who use Twitter, you'll know that when talking about a specific topic or issue the hashtag (#) is a useful signpost. It tells you what people are talking about. Very quickly on Friday #japan and #earthquake dominated Twitter. People wanted to know what was happening, whether friends and family were safe, who was affected, where they could go to be safe. The volume of tweets was impossible to keep up with.

A screenshot of some of 5 live's tweets

A screenshot of some of 5 live's tweets

But Twitter is also incredibly useful in a catastrophe like this to open up a direct channel of communication with those people caught up in it. By narrowing it down to a geographic search - it's possible locate who is tweeting out of where and talk to them directly.

Over the last three days, I've been talking to around 15 different people on Twitter in Sendai and Fukushima. Some of those people we've spoken to on air. For others, Twitter has been their only means of communication.

Since Friday, the tweets have kept coming like the ones below:

@ImogenJC lots of fires now and they found 200-300 bodies washed up on shore. Unbelievable.

@ImogenJC Thank you! Still shaking with the aftershocks, and nervously watching what official reactor news is available. Surviving...

@ImogenJC I'm still in Fukushima. Have not been evacuated yet!..

@ImogenJC yes I'm in sendai. Just blackness and alot of people gathered in schools for safety. Faces of shock everywhere.

@ImogenJC we are staying put and praying for the best. Too many people to move and I don't want to leave anyone behind.

All of this was information we could use to give clear and accurate picture of what was happening in one of the worst affected areas of Japan. It was immediate and timely.

But Twitter is also a tool for us to communicate outward. We could pass on the latest FCO advice, flag the latest information and broadcast what was being said on-air those people following the what was happening online.

Others were doing the same. The US State Department used Twitter to send out emergency numbers. Other organisations used Twitter to post info for English speakers living in Japan about shelters for those left homeless by the quake. And over the weekend, Twitter posted a guide in Japan to help people get information and communicate as widely as possible with friends and family in the aftermath of the earthquake.

As we saw in Egypt and now in Japan the uses for social media are constantly evolving both for journalists and those caught up in events. We'll be monitoring what's happening in the Twitterverse as our coverage continues.

You can follow us on Twitter, @bbc5live.

Imogen Crump is a Senior Broadcast Journalist with 5 live.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Trivialising and minimising news and contacts. Yes good in the Japan situation, but as for all the rubbish spouted* by the twitterati such as Bacon and Fry, and the amount of indiscretions tweeted by the luvvies of film, tv and music, forget it as a proper communication tool. I can see the value of Facebook, and in the case of the earthquake as outlined by Imogen, but I wish there wasn't the tweeting mentality taking over the rest of the airways, that just strokes the ego of idiots.

    *"Oooh!! Just woke up!!Need coffee!! Now!!"

  • Comment number 2.

    Imogen; take a deep breath and just consider the complete load of twaddle you have just posted. You live in a world surrounded by twitter rubbish. You are supposed to be in the news industry broadcasting stories based on fact, not the unsubstantited chatter that comes from mobile phones. Go and have a coffee with Robbie Savage .... he's the king.

  • Comment number 3.

    and just what is the jounalistic value of having Sheilagh et al out there? i couldn't believe it when I realised she'd been flown out - to do what? blimey what a waste of money -

  • Comment number 4.

    From a FOI reply asking for salary amounts, this answer from the BBC Information and Compliance Team:

    "Based on staff employed on permanent or fixed-term contracts as at 28 February 2009, the median salary for a Broadcast Journalist within Radio 5Live was £32,014 and for a Senior Broadcast Journalist £42,452. These figures are based on full-time equivalent salaries to take into account those staff who work part-time."

    So tweets are a very cheap way of saving 5Live money on real journalism from real on the spot journalists when salaries are so high. Oh, except Damian Grammaticus, Alistair Leathead, Jim Naughtie and Nick Ravenscroft all reporting properly on Radio Four.


  • Comment number 5.

    What a load of twaddle this post is... unless tweets come from official sources they are may or may not be eyewitness accounts and may or may not be representative, factual and appropriately contextualised. I am just waiting for lazy 5Live "journalists" to be caught out quoting tweets as facts. It's only a matter of time.

    "For others, Twitter has been their only means of communication." ... this is also total garbage. You can tweet via the internet or via text. This means that anyone we tweets has either text or internet capability. Clearly not their only means of communication then Imogen is it.

    Sure, Twitter has a place in a natural disaster, but it is no substitute of quality journalism something sadly in increasingly short display on 5Live.

  • Comment number 6.

    Excellant use of Twitter by 5live to cover events in Japan, it is an absolute Godsend, without Twitter i very much doubt that information would be so readily avaliable, at the end of the day the listeners will decide if 5lives use of Twitter will be a success or failure, and so far it has been a resounding success, with thousands of people deciding to use Twitter as a way of expressing their views on 5live.

  • Comment number 7.

    ... and why do we want to hear those views Fed? I want to hear accurate, informed news and opinion from trained journalists, not the views of Bob the builder or white van man.

  • Comment number 8.

    Watchword of life? Quality not quantity.

    "Stopped off at a Tokyo watering hole. It's practically empty but determined to find people to talk to. about 21 hours ago via Mobile Web"

    Cor, that's interesting and informative Shelagh. Millions of lives will be affected if this reactor melts down, but Shelagh goes to a bar at a time of national and international crisis, to find what the man in the pub feels. God help us.

  • Comment number 9.

    Can't we just have proper reporting anymore. You know, when serious reporters told us the facts of what was actually happening and not what they were up to?

  • Comment number 10.

    Not that I now listen to Five lots these days but I have noticed during today's selective listening that the focus in Japan by Five seems to be on the nuclear stuff, which as far as I know hasn't killed anyone (yet) (hopefully it will not) whereas reporting on the utter human misery and carnage caused to tens of thousands killed, injured, trapped etc etc, is being left by the wayside. How about some real human(e) stories instead of concentrating on the nuclear stuff? Thanks

  • Comment number 11.

    Hello,

    Hope everyone's well. Just a couple of points I'd like to come back on regarding the above blog post.

    ryanw, you wrote: "Sure, Twitter has a place in a natural disaster, but it is no substitute of quality journalism". Totally agree. Twitter and the like are just ONE of the resources we can use to get a clear picture of what's happening. It is, of course, not the ONLY resource. As well as having journalists on the ground who can tell us what's going on, we can add to that Tweets from real people in places that at the time were difficult (or sometimes impossible) to reach.

    Carrie, you wrote: "...the amount of indiscretions tweeted by the luvvies of film, tv and music, forget it as a proper communication tool". I think the comparing a "Oooh!! Just woke up!!Need coffee!! Now!!" tweet and "Yes I'm in sendai. Just blackness and alot of people gathered in schools for safety. Faces of shock everywhere" is a bit disingenuous. Your example doesn't have news value, whereas someone looking out at what's just happened where they live contributes to our overall picture of what's going on.

    Jackstumps, you wrote: "You are supposed to be in the news industry broadcasting stories based on fact..." Absolutely. One of the things that is very necessary to do when using Twitter to aid newsgathering is to verify that the person sending messages is who they say they are. These checks are done before any information they provide us with is used. Like I've said before, the idea of using Twitter is to contribute to the overall picture. When something like the disaster in Japan happens, we always look for eyewitness accounts of what happened, Twitter is a short-hand version of the same premise.

    ryanw (again) you wrote: "...may not be eyewitness accounts and may or may not be representative, factual and appropriately contextualised." Of course the veracity of what's being said is checked. Additionally, Twitter is not a one-way street. Much like a telephone call when fact-checking, there is a conversation that goes on before any of the information is used. Those conversations also provide a context.

    Linda111 - thanks for your comment. Sadly, Japan's nuclear crisis is the latest chapter in this story. I went and had a look at how R4's Today programme is covering the story. Their top line today is: "The authorities in Japan say a nuclear power plant at Fukushima which was damaged by Friday's earthquake and tsunami is now releasing high levels of radiation directly into the atmosphere..." The concern is that the effects of the nuclear crisis could be just as devastating as what's come before it and that merits it topping the news agenda at the moment.

    Fedster - thanks for your comment: "...listeners will decide if 5lives use of Twitter will be a success or failure." Spot on.

  • Comment number 12.

    Imogen, you did not quote the rest of that piece of my post:

    "I see the value of Facebook and in the case of the earthquake as outlined by Imogen, but I wish there wasn't the tweeting mentality taking over the rest of the airways, that just strokes the ego of idiots."

    As you can see I was clearly separating the earthquake tweets from the loony stuff posted by all these self-possessed idiots and which seem to be taking over people's lives so that they can't move without updating everyone. Very unfair of you to suggest I was demeaning the experience of those people who have been so badly affected and being at all insincere about this tragedy.

  • Comment number 13.

    carrie - point taken. But firmly worth seperating those tweets that do actually inform as opposed to ones that broadcast, well, not a lot.

  • Comment number 14.

    "...listeners will decide if 5lives use of Twitter will be a success or failure." Spot on."

    I would have actually hope BBC editorial standards and an aspiration to maintain the Corporation's reputation for quality broadcast journalism would determine whether the use of Twitter was a success or failure.

    As I said it's just a matter of time before 5Live is caught out by reporting tweets as fact.

  • Comment number 15.

    I share ryan w's concerns re this exercise. how will you select yr audience? and will you ensure a balance?

  • Comment number 16.

    Sorry - posted above comment in wrong blog section - meant to post it in section concerning the AV election prog you're planning to do with VD

 

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