World Agenda

Last updated: 22 january, 2010 - 17:06 GMT

New media vital in breaking Haiti earthquake story

New and emerging media played a key role in breaking news to the outside world of the Haiti earthquake. Citizens turned to a range of networking tools in a bid to share the news and personal stories from microblogging on Twitter and video-sharing on YouTube to the internet telephone application Skype, and the social media site Facebook.

For over 24 hours after the quake, countless reports and images came not only from big, established news organisations but from ordinary people on the spot.

New platforms feed traditional media

A man with the Red Cross speaks on his mobile phone (Copyright AFP)

Phone lines and the power supply are down regularly in Haiti

Traditional news media, such as national TV channels and newspapers, accepted the mass of material as vital in delivering the story in its early stages in the context of a severely damaged communications and transport infrastructure, chronic power failure, and extensive damage to key buildings in the capital. Leading US news outlets such as CNN, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were busy aggregating, sorting and presenting citizen-generated content from an early stage to paint a picture of the start of a humanitarian catastrophe.

However, aid agencies, charities and others pointed out that while news was being broken and getting out of the country via new and emerging media, such platforms were often unable to provide practical assistance to victims.

First reports

As major news organisations published quotes from officials on what had happened, eyewitness accounts were being posted to Twitter

Sydney Morning Herald

News of the earthquake was broken by the US Geological Survey Department which said that a temblor measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale had hit Haiti at 16:53 local time. The report was picked up a few minutes later as an urgent item by international news agencies with the usual rider of no further details being "immediately available".

Australia's Sydney Morning Herald reported: "As phone lines went down and darkness fell over Haiti, the full impact of today's massive earthquake was difficult to know. But as with many recent natural disasters and emergencies, the extent of the chaos in the impoverished Caribbean island emerged quickly online... As major news organizations published quotes from officials on what had happened, eyewitness accounts were being posted to Twitter."


Haitian Fredo Dupoux posted one of the first recorded tweets at 17:00 local time. "Oh shiet [sic] heavy earthquake right now! In Haiti", along with tweeter FutureHaiti who said "Earthquake 7 Richter scale just happening #Haiti."

internet is on! no phones! hope all are ok

Richard Morse - @RAMHaiti tweets from his hotel

Foreign journalistic resources were thin on the ground when the quake struck in Haiti, often described as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. The only full-time correspondent was a reporter for the US Associated Press news agency. The rest were local stringers and staff.

Richard Morse, a musician who runs the Oloffson Hotel, an iconic building made famous as the Trianon in Graham Greene's novel The Comedians, reported on 12 January that his hotel was still standing. "We're ok at the oloffson. internet is on! no phones! hope all are ok. a lot of big buildings in PAP are down".

Haitian radio and TV host Carel Pedre was among the more prominent voices tweeting in the early hours following the quake. He tweeted at 19:00. "If U need to To get in Touch with friends and family in Haiti. Send me a Private Message with names and phone numbers. I'll get Back to U!"

Rescue efforts underway

Troy Livesay, a US missionary, blogger and tweeter who lives in Haiti, posted some of the most moving tweets in a constantly updating flow of information. At 1209 a.m. on 13 January he tweeted "Church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy."

The Twitter community in fact provided much of the early information on the crisis in the existence of what the Columbia Journalism Review called "the Haitian news vacuum". The Los Angeles Times quickly created a list of Twitter users believed to be tweeting from Haiti and the New York Times blog The Lede began regularly updating a post with news about the quake. The Lede's editor said that "Any readers who are in Haiti or in touch with people there are encouraged to use the comment thread below to share first-hand accounts with us".


We immediately moved someone supervising social media and our iReports to the Haiti desk

Nick Wrenn, CNN International Digital Services

Footage from YouTube, the hugely popular video-sharing site owned by Google, was used extensively by TV channels across the world in the immediate aftermath of the quake, in the absence of material from the main TV news agencies APTN and Reuters TV, and from individual broadcasters. A YouTube video at around 22:00 local time on 12 January from the American Red Cross appeared to be the first upload of news of the disaster.

Night fell shortly after the quake struck, plunging Port-au-Prince into darkness, but after daybreak on 13 January hundreds of videos were being uploaded, some presenting harrowing pictures of dead and injured victims and others showing the extent of the devastation wreaked by the disaster.

Broadcasters from around the world used this citizen-generated material in bulletins and rolling news programmes, dramatically underlining the coming of age of new and emerging media as powerful news tools.

The broadcaster with the most material on the quake from such sources appeared to be CNN. Video reports from citizen journalists come into the CNN iReport desk where they are vetted for verifiability by editorial staff. Around two years ago, the iReport section of CNN's website, where people can upload video material and contact details, became a usable source for CNN when vetting procedures were put into place.

Nick Wrenn, of CNN International Digital Services said "We immediately moved someone supervising social media and our iReports to the Haiti desk". On 13 January, CNN's iReport had 1.4m page views, a 240% increase over the last high recorded last year.


A crane parked by a hospital sign and rubble.

Along with other tweeters, Carel Pedre was also sending digital citizen photos of the destruction caused by the quake. Many of the images were graphic and disturbing, and appeared in mainstream newspapers and on TV channels shortly afterwards.

People in Haiti uploaded images to the Yahoo-owned Flickr photo-sharing site, for example employees of a US-based NGO in Haiti; a missionary in Archaie, Haiti; and an internet company operator in Haiti.

However, difficulties exist and care must be taken in identifying user-generated content, as many users also upload agency images to their photo-streams.


People are coming together and helping others survive

Ansel Herz, an independent journalist on Skype

By 13 January, the day after the quake, international news media were still struggling to enter Port-au-Prince. But Skype, a software application that allows users to make voice calls over the internet, had by then been used to great effect to get urgent news out of Haiti.

Via Skype, the BBC spoke to Ansel Herz, an independent journalist who had been in Petionville. He told the BBC that an aftershock was happening as he spoke, and that "many multi-storey buildings had fallen".

There was "devastation everywhere," he said. "People are coming together and helping others survive," he said, adding that "not a lot in the way of help was coming from the authorities and the peacekeepers". He told how he witnessed rescue efforts with pickaxes at the partially collapsed cathedral building, and how for people who were already poor "it was difficult to describe the problems facing them".


Every minute, people have been posting more than 1,500 status updates on Facebook that contained the word 'Haiti'

Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook

Randi Zuckerberg, who manages non-profit initiatives for Facebook, on 14 January described in a post on the Facebook corporate blog how the Haiti quake had emphasised the internet's critical role in "connecting the world's population in times of tragedy". The social media site quickly launched a "Global Relief on Facebook" page where the more than 350 million people who use the service can "educate themselves and find out how to help not only in Haiti but wherever disaster and misfortune may strike".

Zuckerberg added that moments after the quake struck, people around the world immediately sought to help with relief efforts and express their solidarity with the victims. "Every minute, people have been posting more than 1,500 status updates on Facebook that contained the word 'Haiti'."

"People have contributed thousands of dollars through the Causes application on Facebook, and groups including the American Red Cross, Oxfam America and Partners in Health have mobilised supporters through their Facebook pages and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 24 hours alone," he said in the post.

Along with its social networking functions, it is known that Facebook is also widely used as a primary news source by younger users.

Aid efforts

Videos were uploaded and shared and celebrities tweeted and spread the word

Jace Shoemaker-Galloway,

While mainstream news organisations are now using social networking sites for news and information, technology and social media are being utilised more frequently in coping with the aftermath of natural disasters. Friends and relatives of victims searched for information using media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Flickr and YouTube for information and assistance.

Texting, Facebook and Twitter campaigns kicked in to support the relief effort in the first hours of the crisis. The social networking sites played a key role in mass mobilisation and raising millions of dollars. Writing on the website, Jace Shoemaker-Galloway noted "thousands of tweets, retweets and TwitPics were shared and viewed as the disaster unfolded. Videos were uploaded and shared and celebrities tweeted and spread the word". By 15 January, Haitian musician Wyclef Jean had raised over US$1m for quake victims through his Yele Haiti foundation.

However, reports inevitably came in of cyber scammers preying on popular generosity and compassion with bogus appeals aimed at enriching only themselves.

Text messaging campaigns facilitate the relief effort by enabling people to contribute financially in a simple way. For example, Text HAITI to 90999 is a mobile phone fundraising initiative supported by the US State Department. People can make a donation to the Red Cross by sending a simple text message

Millions of dollars have now reached the Red Cross, breaking records for a mobile giving campaign.


the world owes a measure of debt to new media platforms - which will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in Haiti in the days and months to come

Curtis Barnard, Columbia Journalism Review blog

Noting how mainstream media were relying on social networks to fill the gaps, US blog Gawker in the early stages of the crisis acknowledged the value of "crowd sourcing" in covering "chaotic breaking news like this". But it added: "the true extent of the damage will not likely be known until news organisations get reporters on the ground - and off Facebook". And the dangers of using instant unchecked information were illustrated by footage that appeared of an earlier earthquake in Japan that purported to be from Haiti but obviously was not.

But Curtis Barnard, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review blog, said that nevertheless "the world owes a measure of debt to new media platforms - which will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in Haiti in the days and months to come - for their assistance in facilitating the early response to this disaster".

BBC Monitoring research 18 Jan 2010

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