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Tsunami Blogs Help Redefine News and Relief Effort

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Channel
Updated January 28, 2005
 
The tsunami unleashed one month ago received saturation coverage in the mainstream media, of course. But the disaster has also been widely reported on the Internet by "citizen journalists"—eyewitnesses who published their own stories online via journals known as Web logs, or blogs.

The stories are personal and gripping and engage readers in ways that cannot be replicated by professional journalists who did not experience the events for themselves. The rise of personal publishing online is impacting the professional media in many ways. But not all the stories are accurate, or even real—and some of the images are hoaxes.

Jay Rosen chairs New York University's journalism department and publishes a blog called PressThink. He describes the blogging boom in the words of Internet expert Clay Shirky: a victory of affinity over geography.

"That means that the cost for like-minded people to find each other has gone way down," Rosen explained. "We saw it with the 'meetups' in politics [people find each other other via the Web, then arrange face-to-face meetings to discuss common interests]. Now eyewitnesses to the tsunami [are finding] those who want firsthand accounts. People with aid to give are finding those in need of aid."

From the Source

As the world struggled to comprehend the scale of the tsunami devastation, first person accounts, images, and video quickly appeared. Bloggers became an information source both for the public and for mainstream media outlets.

"This is journalism. Raw, unedited, but still journalism," said Jonathan Dube, MSNBC.com managing producer and publisher of CyberJournalist.net, a site that tracks the impact of Web logs on journalism.

"Hearing about individual experiences directly from the people who survived the tsunami offered readers a different, more personal perspective on the human side of the tragedy than most of the articles published by news organizations."

One eyewitness blogger is American Rick Von Feldt, a Singapore resident who witnessed the tsunami while vacationing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand. What began as "I'm OK" e-mails to friends and relatives soon became a blog detailing his survival experiences. Now his "Phuket Tsunami Blogspot" features a collection of firsthand tales from many other survivors.

"We all stood there, stunned," Von Feld e-mailed just after the disaster. "People came running up the road—shreiking. 'Water—the water' they were crying. The water receeded slight[ly]—and then, again with a vengence. Rushed forward—rose again—and the 18 feet [5.5-meter] wall rolled over the front of the beach—the shops and everything in its path.

"We stood there in disbelief—not understanding WHY—but realizing that one of the most awful things that could happen—just had."

"The goal has been all along to have people connect to real feelings," Von Feldt said in an e-mail to National Geographic News. "Not just what the televisions say in a 30 second or 60 second 'soundbyte' story—but more."

Such gripping tales go hand in hand with the vast amount of dramatic video footage that has made its way online. The abundance of amateur video was a major part of the tsunami story.

"People realized for years that this would happen with the proliferation of video cameras [and other technology] and that it could be very effective," Rosen said. "In this case we had a combination. [The tsunami impact] was in a lot of remote areas where the media was not on hand, and it happened over a very large geographic area. It was also an event where the footage really told the whole story without any background knowledge. You watch this wave and the destruction—and that's the story."

Matching Aid Givers With People in Need

Reportage was not the only function of blogs nor perhaps the most important.

"The more interesting and useful way the Internet has been used is to share information about relief efforts and to help people connect with missing family members," Dube said.

"For example, a dozen Indian bloggers launched an excellent group blog called The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, posting news tidbits and information about resources, aid, donations, and volunteer efforts. It has attracted readers from around the world—people in the region who need help, people elsewhere interested in helping out, and journalists."

For people seeking news of missing friends and relatives, an enormous array of forums and other Web sites are available.

One tsunami-image-hosting site is run by a man who goes by "Peter Z"—aka "pollyfodder"—a pensioner from Brisbane, Australia. His blog, which, like many others, features links to aid agencies, is his way of helping in a time of crisis.

"I am archiving the Tsunami calamity for future generations. I am also doing it so people can SEE the devastation and thus open their hearts and wallets even more to help the aid agencies in the region," he e-mailed National Geographic News.

Peter hosts free image galleries, including many portraits posted by friends and family looking for news of loved ones unaccounted for in the tsunami region.

"I search the net and compare photos all the time in the hope I can help find JUST ONE CHILD, or identify the status at least," he wrote. "It is heartbreaking work."

Online Anonymity Poses Problems

Not everyone has blogged with such benign motives. Some blogs have been infected with "trolls," who post comments ranging from insensitive to outrageous.

A British man was handed a six-month prison sentence Monday for sending hoax e-mails to families and loved ones of missing persons. He was reported to have sent some 35 e-mails purporting to be from the British Foreign Office, falsely informing families that their loved ones were dead.

As an enormous volume of eyewitness pictures and video flooded the Internet, mainstream media outlets turned to bloggers for content. But Internet sources are often anonymous and sometimes not reliable. Several mainstream outlets got burned.

Newspapers and broadcasters in India, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa were among the media that published or aired images that they had been duped into thinking were of the actual tsunami. The images—showing a colossal wave looming over people—were actually photographs of a tidal bore (a wall of water that travels up some rivers during high tide). The pictures were apparently taken in China in 2002.

The incidents illustrate a growing problem for traditional media outlets trying to match the speed and immediacy of the "blogosphere."

"Running photos and information from citizen journalists on news sites, in a newspaper, or on air is a great idea, as long as the news organizations can verify the information," Dube said. "But so far, few news organizations have figured out how to handle photos and information from citizen journalists on a large scale while still applying the same level of verification news organizations traditionally apply to information before publishing."

That challenge must still be met, however, as media outlets look to match the intimate, personal nature of Web-log publishing. Mainstream organizations such as the BBC have set up their own bloglike sites to collect images and firsthand accounts of the tragedy.

"I think that it's the professional voice, the flat and neutral voice, that is the artificial thing or the invention," said Rosen, the blogger who chairs the New York University journalism department. "The person to person [exchange], the 'let me share what happened to me,' is closer to real life. Eyewitness accounts are a very human thing. People don't need instruction in journalism to give eyewitness accounts."

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