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 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    

From AJR,   March 2010  issue

Vital but Complementary   

While social media played a key role during the earthquake in Haiti, the episode underscored the fact that traditional news outlets remain essential.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

If anybody out there believes citizen reporting and social media are likely to usurp rather than complement traditional media, that person likely has not attempted to follow a major news story through social media alone. The earthquake in Haiti provides a good opportunity to do just that.

Almost a week after the earthquake hit, the Twitter hashtag #Haiti was still crackling with updates at a rate faster than one per second. At that point, the barrage consisted largely of posts about donation drives and benefits around the world, occasional posts about missing loved ones and a smattering of news updates, many of which were re-tweeted from traditional news organizations such as CNN and the Wall Street Journal. There was a tremendous amount of talking going on, but it was impossible to tease out a clear understanding of the story from the cacophony. One could refine the Twitter search geographically or topically, but the results still lacked big-picture context.

Meanwhile on Facebook, a group called Earthquake Haiti had amassed 265,000 members by the Monday after the disaster. The activity was a little less frenetic than on Twitter, with new posts every minute or so, but it was still inherently unstructured. Posts in English alternated with posts in French; heartbreaking cries for help alternated with reflections on Haiti's troubled history. Individuals who were deeply and personally invested in the story (victims' loved ones, relief workers, journalists) would probably find the motivation to sort through the haystack but as with Twitter, it's hard to imagine the average news consumer using Facebook as a primary source.

This is not meant to discount the literally life-saving role of social platforms. Out of the Haiti disaster alone, there were numerous stories of victims and their loved ones for whom such sites were a beacon and a lifeline. But as they exist today, social sites are best at getting a speaker's message out to his or her network of acquaintances as opposed to organizing the message with context and perspective.

The bigger a story, the messier and more difficult it becomes to parse the social content. When an airplane lands in the Hudson, there may be only a couple of cell phone photos or videos and a handful of on-the-scene accounts sent forth on blogs or social networks. In a disaster the size of Haiti, you're looking at thousands upon thousands of individual stories, questions, images, calls for help not to mention hoaxes and rumors.

Compare that with the coverage provided by traditional news organizations on the same social media platforms. For example, the New York Times' @haitirecovery Twitter feed provided a well-curated flow of information, including links to text stories, photo slideshows, video and multimedia presentations. Much of the content came from the Times, but there were also links to other sources such as YouTube and CNN. The Miami Herald, to name one of many examples, also provided updates on Facebook and Twitter, in conjunction with in-depth Web coverage. On YouTube, almost all of the popular earthquake-related videos were posted by traditional news outlets.

Even when it came to connecting individuals, the most meaningful development was Google's launch, supported by news organizations and the U.S. State Department, of a "People Finder" application designed to consolidate several disparate missing persons databases into a central tool.

Looking side-by-side at an open stream of tweets and a Twitter feed maintained by a professional news organization, it's hard to conceive that they could be competing in the same arena. In fact, they are not. The two are so obviously different that the idea of social media threatening the existence of traditional reporting (or vice versa) seems pretty far-fetched.

If anything, the growth of social media amplifies the need for somebody to sort through the anarchic mass of blog entries, Facebook posts, Twitter updates, YouTube videos and Flickr photos that will follow every major news story in the future. This is a role that professional news organizations could take on, in addition to their central mission of original newsgathering.

Following the disaster in Haiti, numerous headlines declared that the value of social media had been proven once again during the crisis. This is true. However, the tremendous amount of work done by journalists to report from the scene, and to keep newspapers and Web sites robust with information, maps, interactive presentations, databases and relief resources, was no less amazing though perhaps less novel, since they've been at it for so long.

The Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the post-election violence in Iran in 2009 and now Haiti's horrific earthquake.... With each of these major news events, the benefits of citizen media and social networking become stronger and clearer. And so does the essential role of traditional media.