Opinion: Tweeting a natural disaster

Cheryl McGrath / January 15, 2014 11:45 AM

Bushfire season is a reminder of Black Saturday and some of the terrible disasters we’ve had in Australia. And in times of natural disaster, reporting on social media has played a more and more important role as an information resource and even a lifeline. 

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                                       Photo: Brisbane Times

Sites like Facebook and Twitter have had big benefits for emergency situations. Friends can easily share precautionary information or alerts about potential hazards before they become a problem. Bushfire advice checklists have appeared in my own newsfeed over the past few days, with advice like how to care for animals who may be left homeless.

For areas where disasters have already occurred, social media channels can help put people in contact with loved ones, or people who can help them. During the Queensland floods in early 2013, 1.4 million people viewed a single Facebook post from the Queensland Police Service.

But there are pitfalls. Since everybody can upload content so easily, the news can be saturated with images and information from disasters within minutes, no matter how disturbing or insensitive. Actually, the huge number of these images almost demands for them to be sensational, meaning it’s even more tempting to push the envelope. The notorious “falling man” image from 9/11 was scrutinized by journalists before it appeared publicly. Now, if it was taken on an iPhone, it could be on Twitter in a minute.

More seriously, victims and their loved ones can have their privacy breached, such as if names are published or images of people are released. Crazy conspiracy theories and doctored photos can be trending without a second thought – for instance, the eight-year-old girl killed in the Boston bombings who, despite 40,000 retweets, wasn’t actually the one in the photo.

For journalists, reporting has always been an issue of balancing the public interest with sensitive information. Now it’s also an issue of filtering out the stack of untrue theories and noise that social media can create. For disaster reporting, this will include filtering out the information that is too graphic or insensitive to be called “public interest” reporting.

The onus is on the journalist to make decisions on their feet: sorting fact from myth, keeping up the breakneck pace of breaking news, but also protecting the dignity of victims.

And this is only more difficult by the fact there are no formal ethics for social media yet. Although journalists have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon with the rest, a set of standards hasn’t been as quick to happen, meaning journalists often have to rely on only their gut instinct.

It’s an open question what these ethics will look like in the future, or if there will be any formal rules. In the meantime, balancing facts and sensitivity is more complicated than it’s ever been when there’s no hard and fast rule about what’s on the table and what’s not.

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