Social media in disaster zones

For the last week, like many people I suspect, I've been semi-permanently watching the ongoing situation in Japan, from the early hours of the earthquake and tsunami, through to the current nuclear and humanitarian crisis. It's hard not to get through an edition of the news without a lump in the throat many evenings at the moment. From a grimly professional point of view, though, I found it fascinating that during the earthquake, the immediate response of some people was to grab a video camera and start filming, before posting the footage to YouTube or other social media sites.

There was a time that most sensible people would run away, while the journalists would be the only ones running towards the disaster with cameras rolling. Yet now recording seems second nature. Perhaps you could go as far as to say citizen journalism as a phrase should be discarded if that's one of the first instincts. All of us on social media are becoming citizen journalists.

What hasn't changed, fundamentally, though, is the way the narrative is told. Social media makes it clearer in the initial phase, through the use of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, but once the often shocking initial footage clears and the basic facts are in place, then the storytellers, the journalists, thread the whole thing together (for better or for worse). As Richard Sambrook Tweeted, the need for foreign correspondents is still there.

This isn't to say the sources aren't different or more immediate, especially in the case of Twitter. And social media is also becoming, naturally, the quickest way to reach friends, families and loved ones.

Do users of social media, as Mashable asks, have a responsibility with what they post during times of disaster and crisis? Perhaps this isn't the first thing on their mind in a situation like Japan or Libya. Although it's also very easy for rumours and misinformation to spread like wildfire via Twitter. Again, this is where fact checkers are never a bad thing to have.

One final tangental thought. A friend remarked that there appear to be more disasters and the like occurring around the world today. I wonder if it's more than these worldwide disasters were always there, always happened, but we didn't hear about them, or at least didn't hear about them so quickly.

Twenty-four hour global news had already made the world small. Social media has made it even smaller, so we're now more aware of bad things happening quicker, to put it crudely. And, oddly, you can almost see the same news values an editor might pick, being played out on a more global scale. Bad things attract more attention, generally because they're so unusual.

Doesn't mean they're not heartbreaking though. Thousands of lives lost are still thousands of lives lost, whether we hear about them within five hours, fives days, or five weeks of the event.