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The Evolution of Citizen Journalism in Emergency Management

Recent events suggest that the tools used by citizen journalists play an increasingly crucial role in preparedness for and emergency response to disasters.

No longer in its infancy, our understanding of the role of citizen journalism in the news production process is, although debated, well established. However, citizen journalists are no longer simply playing a role in contributing to the news, but are also playing an important role in contributing to emergency management. Some studies have shown that citizen photojournalism plays a role in communicating information during a crisis; others have discussed the role of Wikinews during the reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in the use of citizen journalism material to inform others, and their contributions and presence is being harvested to complement the management of a crisis.

Crisis Reporting

The evolution of digital technology has provided citizens with the tools to capture their own accounts of events, be it images, video or simply their own insights and share it with audiences across the globe. While citizens are able to self-publish their own accounts, such content by the public is increasingly sought out by the professional news industry, with journalists actively seeking citizen journalist content to share via their own networks.

Examples of citizen journalism include eyewitness statements, a survivor's diary, pictures, videos and detailed accounts. In many cases, activities of citizen journalists have been commended, but in others, have been criticized when citizen journalists have placed themselves in danger while trying to record evidence (or potentially ignoring their civic duty to lend aid to others). Moreover, such criticisms have been noteworthy in situations where security was an ongoing concern, including the 2005 London bombings, the Mumbai attacks, and the August 2012 social media reports of attacks by Muslims against North Eastern migrants in India, which caused panic to spread.

More recently, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, The Guardian examined the diffusion of fake images on Twitter to depict events. Despite widespread discussion of fake images within the news media, the analysis of 50 images suggested that although some accounts were considered “fake”, of the images collected, nine were identified as being questionable and two were confirmed as being fake. Concern was also expressed in relation to the spread of rumors via those using social networking sites. For instance, during Sandy, rumours went viral that FEMA was giving out $300 worth of free food stamps for those that had lost power, forcing the agency to initiate a rumor control mechanism.

In the light of this evolution, and the associated challenges, there have been further developments by news organizations developing tools, apps and techniques, such as CNN’s iReport and the newly launched GuardianWitness. It’s possible to see that material from citizen journalists is used within the production of news today, and is welcomed (by some), but that’s not to say that it is without its problems, forcing news organizations to enhance their abilities to verify content prior to publication. Crucially, output from citizen journalists is not simply useful for the construction of news, but can also play a role in crisis management.

Citizen Journalism: Crisis Reporting to Crisis Management

The study of “crisis informatics” illustrates the important role that citizens are playing in contributing to the different stages of crisis management, planning, warning and responding. Recent events, including the tornado in Oklahoma and the Boston attacks, suggest that the tools used by citizen journalists play an increasingly crucial role in preparedness for and emergency response to disasters. Technologies such as crowdsourcing, remote sensing and data mining offer new opportunities to enable officials and first responders the ability to gather information and optimize their response efforts. At the same time, social media can potentially enable citizens to more quickly share information with each other and with emergency officials.

Crucially, tools alone are not enough, they have to be used by citizens for their full potential to materialize.

There are a multitude of examples on how emergency officials (including government agencies and aid organizations) may successfully use new technologies, and the incorporation of citizen journalists to increase the efficiency of emergency response efforts. Such activities will enable crisis managers to bridge the gap between the “official” and the “civilian” efforts in emergency preparedness and response.

The tools for participating in citizen journalism are not restricted to social media, as recently seen with the terror attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya, instead, there are multiple tools that enable citizens to capture and transmit information. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, traditional disaster response systems were initially employed by response organizations to share information between each other, however, the system was not able to take into consideration localized information coming from the Haitian community. The subsequent use of crowdsourcing, via open-sourced crisis-mapping software Ushahidi, enabled response organizations to communicate with Haitians to “capture, organize and share critical information coming directly from Haitians,” according to a United States Institute of Peace Special Report. This sharing of information greatly benefited response efforts and enabled citizens to be actively involved in the response stage of the disaster.

Whereas the conventional approach to emergency response often favors a top-down coordination of search-and-rescue operations, these examples suggest that the successful use of new information technologies will often require officials to assume other roles, such as facilitator of decentralized networks, or require that they use crowd-sourced information for coordination purposes.

In a study of the 2007 California wildfires, social media applications were found to be of use to generate a citizen journalism platform for the dissemination of local information. These activities by members of the public provided essential information, and communicated relevant and up-to-date emergency-related information to community members and emergency responders. The study also revealed the reception of the information by emergency responders, noting that while some responders were displeased with the posted raw information, they also acknowledged the helpful role of citizens in “meeting the voluminous requests for ongoing information,” according to a report in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. Thus decision-makers might proactively integrate content from citizens into their crisis management activities.

Within the participation of sharing information during a disaster, there is evidence that these activities fill a psychological role in building and promoting community centered resilience. For instance, following Hurricane Katrina, evidence suggests that social media was instrumental not only in terms of coordination but also in terms of reducing uncertainty, connecting geographically dispersed communities and building social capital.

The evolution of communication technologies provides ample opportunities for citizen involvement in contributing to the management of crises. It is worth noting that some individuals may not identify their activities as acts of citizen journalism, rather they are simply supplying information to others rather than labeling their actions in a certain way. The growth of social media technologies has increased the public’s ability to mobilize, share more information with each other and often challenge the monopoly that traditional sources of information have enjoyed.

The Challenge Ahead

While material created by citizens can be of use to crisis management, there are a number of challenges for those involved in crisis management to respond to and overcome.

In addition to practical issues such as whether individuals have access to mobile networks, or even power for that matter, it is also important to consider the various social implications of citizen contributions. Considerations include matters relating to ethical issues regarding citizen journalism and misuse of information, unequal access to informational sources and means of communication are among some of the main obstacles against the achievement of the potential that stakeholders’ engagement with social media and the activities of citizen journalists promises.

The verification of information is an essential consideration and obstacle to tackle. Stakeholders must be aware of the difficulties associated with inaccurate information, such as the possibility of the wider circulation of rumors leading to insecurity and potentially panic. The dissemination of inaccurate information could also lead to the further complication of disaster management, for example, by hindering or slowing response efforts.

It also is necessary to consider that there may be a digital divide in the use of information and communications technology in an emergency, and thus there may be some that do not necessarily have the knowledge and tools to share and access digital-based information.

A 2011 study relating to the use of social media by the American Red Cross identified that although social media enables dialog between response organizations and citizens to occur, there were a series of internal barriers: the availability of resources in engaging with social media, particularly in terms of time and staff and gaining the support of the American Red Cross board members, some of who were from an older generation and could not necessarily understand the benefits of social media, nor how it could alienate and discriminate against older members of the public. Thus, the implementation of social media in crisis management causes concern for the operationalization of organizations, and thus further research is required in how best to incorporate social media to enable them to reap the associated benefits and to avoid creating a digital divide within the community they are assisting. 

There are also a series of privacy issues to be taken into consideration when using material created by those reporting at the scene of an attack. For instance, there are privacy infringements and impacts related to surveillance, discrimination and profiling. It is necessary for those using material created by members of the public in a crisis to be transparent and gain consent regarding their intended use of citizen-produced material. For instance, following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, work is currently under way with eight firms (e.g., Google, Twitter, Honda, Rescuenow Inc., JCC Corp) that are trying to learn from the data they collected during the disaster, to “explore ways to support disaster survivors more effectively.” While this is an important venture, it also highlights some of the privacy implications for citizens who are not necessarily aware of the potential use of their information after an event has occurred; thus transparency and clear indicators of future use of public information is essential.

The privacy and data protection implications of the use of communications technology in crisis situations have also been identified by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2013, which recommends that humanitarian organizations should “develop robust ethical guidelines around the use of information.” This includes ensuring consent is gained for any secondary use of data, anonymity is maintained (if desired) and that organizations comply with the various legal instruments implemented to protect users’ data (including their images). A good example of guidelines include “Professional standards for Protection Work” by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Although many other challenges can be extensively discussed, a final consideration worth including here is the necessity of crisis managers, response organizations and authorities to ensure that they are aware of the public dialog surrounding an event, so as to avoid the sharing of valuable, tactical information during a security event. While in many natural disaster situations citizens can be engaged with to help promote resilience, in situations where security is threatened due to an unresolved threat, it is necessary for greater care and consideration to be exercised so as not to escalate the threat. Accordingly, training and preparation in relation to the use of social media in a crisis is essential. Existing training includes programs offered by FEMA Social media in emergency management and papers relating to good practice such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies “Beneficiary communication.”

It is necessary for those involved in crisis management to prepare for the use of citizens’ engagement with social media at the scene of a crisis, so as to optimize the use of this added resource.

Citizen journalists then are not only contributing to reporting the news, but are also providing those involved in crisis management activities with a valuable source of information to help with the various stages of a crisis. However, there are a number of challenges ranging from ethical and privacy issues to more practical issues relating to the verification of information and the maintenance of security that must be taken into consideration in order to sufficiently engage with citizens in crisis management.

Acknowledgement: This work-in-progress paper is based on research emanating from the European Commission-funded Contribution Of Social Media In Crisis management project, under grant agreement No. 312737. The views in this paper are those of the authors alone and are in no way intended to reflect those of the European Commission, nor of our fellow project partners.

Hayley Watson is an associate partner with Trilateral Research & Consulting, UK. Kush Wadhwa is a senior partner with Trilateral Research & Consulting, UK.