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Boxing Day tsunami heralded new era of citizen journalism

Devastation in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami. EPA/Barbara Walton

The camera jerks as the wave crashes through the wall of the restaurant. The tables set out for a wedding breakfast are swept aside. The man behind the camera doesn’t realise the awful reality of what he is seeing: “There’s an even bigger wave out there … I hope they all can swim,” he comments until his companion says: “Put your camera away.”

The tsunami of December 26, 2004, changed the way we report major news stories. It was not the first event to use citizen journalism, but it was the first disaster where the dominant images came from ordinary people.

As Tom Glocer, then head of Reuters, pointed out, none of the wire agency’s 2,300 journalists or 1,000 stringers were on the beaches the moment the wave struck. “For the first 24 hours,” he said, “the best and the only photos and video came from tourists. And if you didn’t have those pictures, you weren’t on the story.”

So coverage of the tsunami threatened to challenge the very nature of journalism itself – which has prided itself on bearing witness and breaking and distributing news. (In the case of the tsunami, journalists were left scrambling to pick up holidaymakers’ video at the airport.)

Questions of taste

But it also meant that fundamental questions have been raised in the past decade about this change in approach – over privacy, verification, taste and decency. We have moved from an era when a reader photograph was seen as a interesting novelty, to a time when, as a former night picture editor put it: “Within seconds of a story breaking, news and picture desks are all assigning reporters, photographers and picture researchers to log-in to Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In.”

Snapped by a citizen: Hurricane Sandy. Brian Birke, CC BY

How has this altered journalism? Whole new methods of verification have had to be put in place, with most media outlets now having guidelines in place or using verification agencies like Storyful. Everyone remembers the Hurricane Sandy shark pictures as an obvious hoax, but many media outlets have erroneously put up pictures that are not what they seem.

Even The Guardian – which has pioneered an open journalism approach – has been caught out, for example putting up a picture of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake on its live blog for the Great East Japan quake of the same year.

Raw and personal

The style of journalism has altered as well. Citizen journalism by its nature tends to be subjective, raw, and intensely personal; this has started to influence the way mainstream media has reported events. At its extreme, you get reporters like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Dr Sanjay Gupta who, during the 2010 Haitian earthquake were filmed rescuing a boy from a mob, and performing surgery on a girl respectively.

Becoming the story.

While the debate about how and when journalists get involved has been around for decades, the decision to film and report in such a way was different. As Adrian Chen of Gawker put it: “At what point does this go from ‘CNN’s Excellent Haiti Coverage’ to ‘CNN’s Excellent Haiti Adventure?’”

There are also legal and ethical problems that emerge with the increasing use of information via social media, such as privacy. We increasingly put our life on line via sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and Twitter. And increasingly those pictures find their way into the mainstream media, being shared way beyond where their creators assumed they would go.

The ‘virtual doorstep’

As part of my PhD I have talked to many survivors of disasters whose pictures and words have been used by the mainstream media. Most were happy, flattered that their material had been used – but also felt overwhelmed by the media interest not just in their pictures but in them personally. The “virtual doorstep” as I have called it, where a Twitter user can be deluged with requests from media online can seem just as overwhelming as the old-style physical doorstep.

The graphic images that can be found online has also mean that there have been concerns that media imagery is becoming more violent, something that seems to be borne out when we recall the front pages of pictures of Saddam Hussein’s execution or Colonel Gaddafi’s death.

Yet despite criticism by people such Suzanne Moore who dubbed coverage of Gaddafi a “snuff fest”, research by academics such as Folker Hanusch suggests that increasingly violent images are still being resisted by the mainstream media.

What is interesting is that media organisations are increasingly having to consider how they deal with staff back in the office, not in the field, who may be traumatised. These are those journalists whose job is to sit and watch UGC videos to decide what can go on air. Organisations such as the BBC have had put in place guidance to ensure that staff are not exposed to traumatic and distressing footage, that comes with no warning, unlike wire images.

It’s hard to believe now, but at the time many believed that the tsunami coverage was a one-off. One commentator surmised that the intense interest in such photos and blogs was down to the story being about “white westerners in bathing suits”. Yet ten years on, we can see the tsunami was a key moment in changing what we believe journalism to be.

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