Citizen Journalists

Before social movements used hashtags alongside picket signs and before Facebook became a major source of news for adults in the United States, a large vessel carrying millions of gallons of oil ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.  Damage assessment following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill failed to observe many uncertainties, particularly those corresponding to the subsistence economies of Native Alaskans.  News media contributed a great deal to this lack of observation.  Narratives of upheaval and destruction from indigenous communities were not covered in dominant news accounts immediately following the spill.  Instead, they remained hidden or inaccessible to stakeholders who, without that information, could not hold Exxon fully responsible.

Although many factors led to lack of observation, one especially significant factor was that of “pack journalism.”  Pack journalism, as described in media and communications literature, is coverage in which publishers and producers of stories “collaborate to cover the same story.”  Journalist Timothy Crouse coined the phrase when he covered the 1972 Presidential election, in which journalists “ate, drank, hung out…[and] compared notes with colleagues week after week.”  A similar form of journalistic parroting in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill influenced which stories were told.  In addition to logistical challenges that encouraged collaboration, Smith (1992) claimed that many reporters, as general assignment reporters, had “no special knowledge of Alaska, the history of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, marine safety, aquatic ecology, or any of the other issues that could have provided a context in which to interpret the spill as an economic, political, or environmental event.”  Lack of familiarity encouraged groupthink.

The fear of missing out on pack-covered stories contributed to lack of observation of less popular narratives.  Yet when analyzing what one can learn from the Exxon Valdez spill, one must ask how a comparable disaster today would be covered differently than it was in 1989.  Based on the pace and structure of modern media, would unobserved uncertainties have had a better or worse chance of being observed?

One could argue that the pace of today’s news media would make initially unheard perspectives following a disaster today more likely to be silenced.  By the time one perspective is unpacked, some argue, another story arises and the 24-hour news cycle shifts attention away from developing deeper analyses or asking challenging questions of what we do not know.  One writer has referred to this phenomenon as the evolution of the news cycle from a 24-hour news cycle to a 60-second news cycle.

I have a more optimistic view of the role of technology in uncovering initially unobserved perspectives in the aftermath of disaster.  A quicker pace of journalism does not necessitate a less meticulous form of journalism.  Even in the year of the Exxon Valdez spill, a year packed with major headlines, including student protests in Tiananmen Square and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the spill continued to be covered, researched, and discussed in news sources.  Other recent environmental disasters, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the 2011 Fukushima Daichii nuclear disaster, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 continue to receive similar media attention.  The pace of news media today leaves room for more stories that may have received less attention in 1989, but for major environmental disasters, standards of thorough journalism are no more likely to be violated than half a century ago.

One must also consider the vastly different structure of news media today.  While the Exxon Valdez spill was covered primarily in newspapers and on television, the aftermaths of recent environmental disasters have seen the popularization of citizen journalism, defined by Jay Rosen as “people formerly known as the audience [employing] the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.”  Various forms of citizen journalism have covered aspects of disaster that traditional forms have left unturned.  Specifically, social media has had a major role in allowing affected parties of disaster to express their grievances, voice their opinions, and relay their conditions.  Following devastating tornadoes in the Midwest in 2013, for instance, Twitter provided an outlet for affected parties to tell their stories.  During one tornado, Ed Curran, a meteorologist at CBS, said, “We can watch for rotation on our radars, but we don’t know what’s going on at ground level until you tell us.  So thank you for your tweets.”  As the tornado cut a path of destruction through Illinois, residents of Coal City used Twitter to tell their stories, which would have otherwise been unobserved in real time.  Along the same lines, the Red Cross has adopted new social media tools to provide updates on shelters and food distribution centers to inform disaster victims.

There are a few potential issues with the emergence of social media as a form of citizen journalism.  One is veracity.  In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, researchers found that victims frequently “retweeted” inaccurate information.  There is also the question of whether social media will spur action effectively in the aftermath of any given disaster.  Despite these concerns, there is reason to believe that citizen journalism can contribute to the telling of otherwise unobserved narratives in the future.  And this is a good thing.  History, after all, includes a collection of standpoints unheard and perspectives forgotten.  Conquerors tell the stories of their triumphs; dominant accounts are colored by the experiences of the powerful.  It is the powerless who need to have their stories rediscovered and told.

Image Credit: Harland Quarrington via Wikimedia Commons


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