News coverage of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan highlight more than ever the mainstream news media’s reliance on user-generated social media to tell a story. This phenomenon has even become part of the actual reporting on the tsunami — I just watched a whole report by Josh Levs about social media’s impact on this event on CNN’s TV coverage. According to a December 2010 piece by PBS, Levs is at the forefront of this leverage of social media by the mainstream media. You can read more on his take on social media in the news at the link.
“The  Iran riots showed us that times have changed. A few Tweets can lead you to discover something that an entire country with soldiers doesn’t want you to know. It was a huge change. It was a sign that newsgathering now has a new option.”
~ Josh Levs
Using images captured by someone not employed by a mainstream news media organization is not new. Whenever you’ve seen those silent, color images depicting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, you’ve most likely been watching the so-called Zapruder Film. Abraham Zapruder, a private citizen, captured perhaps the most comprehensive view of the assassination with his home movie camera. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — 10 years ago this year — news media also solicited home movies of the attack to further illustrate the devastation caused by them. In recent years it’s not been uncommon for mainstream news outlets to turn to YouTube videos and the like to round out their coverage of an event. And certainly, academic researchers have been interested in the ways people use social media in a crisis for years now.
I think a key difference — which has been slowly evolving in recent months and years, but is highlighted in coverage of the tsunami — is that mainstream news media now actively solicit and rely on these social media contributions for their news coverage. Additionally, at least in the report I caught this morning, not only are these news media relying on images captured by ordinary people to enhance their own reporting, but they are also reporting on how much they themselves are doing so as part of coverage of the tsunami.
The social media aspect has become a well-reported angle of coverage of the tsunami. For example, stories of people turning to Facebook, Twitter and the like to find missing loved ones are an integral part of the picture of news coverage being painted by the mainstream media. Instead of a YouTube video gaining popularity after a news broadcast, CNN now reports on which YouTube videos have already gone viral. If you’d like to watch, YouTube’s CitizenTube maintains a collection of videos related to major events in the news.
I find it amazing that all these people, caught in the middle of the earthquake, had the presence of mind to get out their cameras and take video as they were escaping. These days, everyone’s a journalist.