Reporting on disaster

Posted: March 22, 2011 by Karissa Donkin in #9 Japan

Earlier this term, I posted a link to a story about a woman texting her mother while buried after an earthquake. For all of the negative things we can say about today’s “connected generation” who spend their entire lives plugged into social media, the technology can actually save lives and provide a link between families at a time of need.

The story is no different in Japan, one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. As we saw in class on Friday, people are using Facebook to interact with friends and family. They’re using Twitter to raise awareness of fundraising campaigns. Journalists, like The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon, are using Twitter to provide the most up-to-date information. MacKinnon in particular has been tweeting almost literally around the clock from Japan, and has built a list of other people to follow for the latest info.

Because the disaster in Japan is multi-faceted – an earthquake, tsunami and “nuclear meltdown” are all causing panic – a lot of the news coverage in Japan has been focused on simply explaining what is actually going on. Charts and explanatory videos have shown up to help us understand all of the science behind the disaster.

I’m going to look at three media outlets – CNN, BBC and The New York Times – to analyze how they have covered disaster online in the 2.0 world.


Most of CNN’s coverage includes both text and video. Like many other outlets, CNN has also developed an interactive page to explain Japan’s nuclear concerns. They also have a live blog for all of the latest information from Japan. CNN’s coverage has been criticized for being too sensationalist and focusing too much on the nuclear crisis rather than the faces of the disaster. The live blog raises a couple of questions: Does aggregating and posting every tidbit of information that flows in by the second increase this sensationalistic reputation? Should CNN be trying to verify this information before publishing it on their live blog for all to read (and freak out about)? This would be ideal but I’m not going to deny it would be hard to do in today’s news cycle.


New York Times reporters seem to be posting updates to the website on Japan around the clock. One minute beforeI checked the New York Times page, this story about a town in Japan holding on to hope had been posted. After 9/11, the New York Times created Portraits of Grief about the people killed in the attacks. The Toronto Star did something similar by profiling Canadians missing in Haiti after last year’s earthquake. It would be cool if the Times stepped up and did something similar for New Yorkers missing in Japan, if there are a substantial number. I think the Times has been pretty good at implementing new media, video and interactive features into the website. The Times just seems to get interactivity. This story has been no different. The Times has galleries, maps and videos from Japan in addition to a cool feature showing satellite photos before and after the quake. I just wish all of the Times’ Japan coverage was tagged in some way so it was all together on one page – their front page is kind of overwhelming so that might make it easier to find any coverage I’m looking for.


BBC seems to have pretty comprehensive coverage of the disaster, including video, audio and maps. Everything is centralized on one page, which is nice. The page is chock full of interactive features, including a tremor timeline and even a feature on what you need to have at hand during a quake. They even got a professor from Cambridge to break it down for us and tell us that we should be more worried about tsunamis than a nuclear meltdown. Their page also includes a lot of background information. A lot of the stories seem to focus on the nuclear crisis.

The 2.0 world is really changing the way we learn about disaster. It’s not a distant news story halfway across the world any more. Somehow, social media makes it seem a lot closer to home.


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