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Chapter 6. Emergent Journalism Process
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Chapter 6. Emergent Journalism Process

KPBS: pioneering use of social media in a crisis

When wildfires hit San Diego in 2007, social media were far less ubiquitous and multi-faceted than they are today. That makes KPBS' pioneering efforts to integrate social media into the rest of its reporting on the disaster even more impressive.

Convergence Editor Leng Caloh, who is responsible for integrating the station's radio, TV and online platforms, managed the effort. She had little precedent to guide her.

The volume of communications of all sorts quickly overwhelmed the region's telecom infrastructure. Caloh decided early in the coverage to swap the normally feature-rich website for a plain HTML one, which would load more quickly and require less bandwidth. The station actually went off the air temporarily, when power lines to its transmitter were burned (a commercial station carried the signal for a day until power was restored).

Even though KPBS hadn't formally begun to use social media at the time, Caloh and other staff members had played with Twitter, Google's My Map and other apps on their own time, so they were able quickly to apply that experience to the station's (and audience's) needs.

There was a lot of trial and error. The station had not created an official Twitter account in advance. Caloh says KPBS' tweets during the wildfires were largely more of a "broadcast" model used primarily to broadcast updates, rather than a real dialogue with listeners. She says that over time, the staffers posting tweets learned to be more succinct, to provide more information within Twitter's 140-character limit.

What captured public and worldwide media attention was the station's use of photos that had been posted on a Flickr page the station created (Wildfires 2007 KPBS San Diego).

In a disaster of this sort, what listeners are most interested in is "hyperlocal" information, specifically, whether or not their houses had burned. By manually linking the photos to a Google Map using the geo-coding information on Flickr, the station made this critical information easily available, and it quickly became an essential resource for both the public and officials. There were 1.7 million page views of the Google Map during the crisis.

KPBS Wildfire Map
KPBS Wildfire Map

The most prominent Twitter feed during the fires came from local web designer and activist Nate Ritter, who acted on his own. Caloh says that if there was a similar disaster in the future the station would reach out to people such as Ritter to supplement its own resources.

Note: KPBS News Director at the time of the fires, Michael Marcotte, has written and spoken extensively about the station's role in the wildfires. Working as an independent consultant with public media's Local News Initiative and PRNDI, he created the Public Radio News Directors' Guide, which includes best practices on crisis coverage.

The following are meant simply as exploratory guidelines. Hopefully it is obvious by now that it is impossible to definitively plan and execute an emergent journalism process. By definition it must instead evolve based on the local resources, local players, and situations as they manifest themselves. These steps, however, may increase the chances of success.

6.1. Take the initiative: hold a Meetup

Public station KPBS-FM/TV cobbled together a citizen journalism initiative (see sidebar) on the fly, in the middle of the San Diego wildfires in 2007. However, it stands to reason that the more advance planning you can do, the greater the likelihood that the program will be a success, especially since the social media depend so heavily on establishing mutual trust. It's hard to do that in the middle of a crisis!

While you could initiate an online discussion with listeners through your website, perhaps the most effective way to create the framework for an emergent journalism program is to hold a "Meetup," where listeners are invited to come to the station for several hours some evening or weekend and meet with representatives of station management and news staff.

Based on the public broadcasting "PubCamp" experience the event is more likely to be successful if you establish a specific goal in advance: determining whether there is sufficient interest to merit creating an emergent journalism initiative, and, if so, what the guidelines might be.

For the program to be a success, there needs to be a true exchange of ideas in which listeners/citizen journalists' opinions on how they can contribute are really solicited and respected. This is especially true since social media may allow them to gather and provide kinds of information that you could not obtain from conventional sources, especially hyper-local information that they are better able to obtain than your professional staff could, simply because of their greater numbers and geographic dispersion.

At the same time, the listener/journalists must learn something of the responsibilities of conventional journalism, and that this is not opinion-oriented blogging: the chances that their contributions will actually be used will be greater if they are introduced to and adopt the basics of news-gathering and journalistic standards. Distributing The Huffington Post's "Citizen Journalism Publishing Standards" can be a good starting point.

One fruitful area for discussion is the strengths and limitations of various types of social media and mobile devices, as outlined above. For example, geo-tagged photos and videos can be particularly informative: what kind of content should people try to include in such a video to make it informative? However they shouldn't be solicited or submitted (especially true with videos) if bandwidth is compromised.

Consider giving the attendees a .txt file with the Tweak the Tweet hashtags, discussing the tags, and then asking whether they can think of a way to create more shortcuts that would make information from citizen journalists more informative. This might spark further innovation that would make social media even more relevant in a disaster.

It's also important to make it clear to the attendees that you are not abdicating your responsibility as professional journalists. They must understand that you reserve the right to review all material that is submitted, and to unilaterally remove any material posted directly to your website that does not meet your journalistic standards (a succinct disclaimer on the site [22] will reinforce this point).

Don't forget to ask the attendees to also help you get information out during a disaster: each of them has their own social network, some of whose members may not already be among your listeners. These listeners' personal credibility may not only help you inform the public, but also increase your listener base.

6.2. Why wait for a crisis?

While its greatest benefit may come in a disaster, doing at least some crowdsourcing now can not only prepare for a disaster, but also provide a valuable adjunct to your current newsgathering. New York Public Radio pioneered this approach with its "Your Uncommon Economic Indicators" program (see sidebar). Using Crowdmap to collect and organize on-the-scene reports from listeners on Election Day, for example, would be a simple way to begin the process in your own community.

6.3. When disaster strikes

Because communications volume was so high during the 2007 wildfires, KPBS realized its normal website would require too much bandwidth, so it switched to a bare-bones HTML site and then added the Twitter and Flickr streams that quickly made it the leading regional information source during the fire event. However, the development of Ushahidi's Crowdmap since that time means that you could instantly offer such a service in a crisis through a simple link, and then listeners could post their tweets, sms messages and photos directly to the Crowdmap.

One of the real advantages of social media and mobile apps is that if your news department has determined that it needs more information about a given area, you can send an alert via Twitter or sms text that will alert listeners in that area that you need their assistance, and give them a specific assignment: do you need to know what kind of damage has happened? Have people been hurt? Has an area flooded? This will allow your professional staff to concentrate their efforts elsewhere, bolstered by the citizen journalists.

Most of all, in a disaster, if you have solicited citizen journalist participation, make certain that someone on the staff is monitoring submissions, even if they do so only intermittently: nothing is worse than responding to a request for information and then feeling your efforts have been ignored or taken for granted. The same staffer can also review the citizen content for accuracy.

[22] The Brian Lehrer Show addresses this issue with the following disclaimer: "WNYC is an organization committed to the highest journalistic ethics and programming standards and to independent, noncommercial journalism, both in fact and appearance. Stories submitted by project collaborators that appear on WNYC.s Brian Lehrer Show crowd source reporting pages are anecdotal in nature and should not necessarily be expected to achieve the journalistic standards of WNYC."

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Chapter 5. Creating a new synthesis: emergent journalism  Table of Contents  Chapter 7. Resources