By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Citizen media and the earthquake in Haiti

Note: This item originally included a photograph of a woman being rescued that was cited as an example of citizen media. On March 16, I was informed that the photo was, in fact, the copyrighted work of Daniel Morel, a professional photojournalist. Please see this for more information.

Update: Wednesday, 7:21 p.m. We are posting more links in the comments.

Ever since a tsunami devastated South Asia in December 2004, social media and citizen journalism have been recognized as key components of covering natural disasters and other breaking news stories. Professional news organizations can’t be everywhere; on the other hand, millions of people are carrying cell phones with cameras. New-media expert Steve Outing called the tsunami “a tipping point” for citizen journalism.

In such a decentralized news environment, the challenge for journalism has been to make sense of what is happening in something approaching real time. Most recently, social media have played an important role in bringing news of the Iranian protest movement to the outside world.

So when a major earthquake hit western Haiti yesterday, it was no surprise that news organizations, large and small, tapped into Haiti’s online community in order to provide them with the on-the-ground eyes and ears they did not have. Given Haiti’s unfortunate status as one of the poorest countries in the world, you might not think there would be much in the way of electronic communication. In fact, there is a lively and heartbreaking stream of reports coming out of the island.

I’ll begin closest to home. Last night the Boston Haitian Reporter started a live blog to gather accounts from readers and to link out to relevant information. The blog includes a live Twitter stream of news from Haiti. As the Boston Globe observes, there are 43,000 people of Haitian descent living in Greater Boston.

The New York Times, which over the past few years has morphed into one of the most Internet-savvy news organizations, has, not surprisingly, posted stories, a slideshow and a Reuters video. But the real action is taking place on The Lede, its blog for breaking news, which includes everything from staff reports to cell-phone photos posted to TwitPic. The Times has put together a Twitter list of people and organizations posting news updates about Haiti. And it is actively soliciting reports from its readers:

The New York Times would like to connect people inside and outside Haiti who are searching for information about the situation on the ground. Readers outside Haiti who have friends and relatives in the country, along with readers in Haiti who are still able to access the Internet, can use the comments section below as a forum to share updates. Some readers may be searching for the same family members.

Have you been able to reach loved ones in the area affected by the earthquake? What have you learned from people there?

National Public Radio’s efforts bear some similarities to those of the Times. NPR is concentrating its breaking-news and linking efforts on its blog The Two-Way, and it has also assembled a Twitter list.

CNN, whose iReport project is a major outlet for citizen journalists, has put together a page on the Haitian earthquake. As is often the case with citizen media, it’s not always easy to tell what you’re looking at. Some of the images are quite graphic, and are slapped with a label reading “Discretion advised.”

One of my favorite examples of professional journalists and citizen bloggers working together is Global Voices Online, a project founded at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society several years ago. Global Voices’ editors round up bloggers from every part of the world. For the most part, they labor in obscurity. But not at moments like this.

As of this morning you’ll find a compilation of tweets and photos and a digest of what bloggers in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean are saying. Here is Afrobella, described as a “Trinidadian diaspora blogger”:

Right now my heart aches for Haiti. The already-suffering island nation was just hit with a 7.0 earthquake. A hospital has collapsed. Government buildings have been severely damaged. There was a major tsunami watch, earlier. Reports of major devastation are just starting to pour in…my thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Haiti, and anyone with friends or family in Haiti.

You can also click through directly to Afrobella’s blog.

Twitter itself is a good source of raw information. At the moment, Yéle, a charity founded by Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean, is the number-two trending topic, and “Help Haiti” is number three. If you want to dip into the Twitter torrent, try searching on #haiti.

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The Boston-Haiti connection


Haitian earthquake relief


  1. Tom G

    “If you want to dip into the Twitter torrent, try searching on #haiti.”

    … but not before you choose: the blue bill or the red pill.

  2. Like your post, Dan. Are you going to be following this further? We’re continuing to pull in links at GV.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ivan: Hoping to keep up on it. Feel free to post links here.

  3. Boston Venerable Bede

    It is too bad that the US Government response has been to provide to charity rather than a deployment of troops and resources to the island. Minimally, we would need a deployment of 1 Combat Engineer Brigade with substantial medical support for 90 days to provide search and rescue relief.

  4. Watching this unfold in real-time online was extraordinary and heartbreaking. The raw feed of images was notable; nothing like it on the major news sites. I took the time to write up how it was covered last night too. As requested, Dan, here’s the link:
    Covering disaster on the real time Web: Haiti earthquake.

  5. Here’s a link to the Global Voices Special Coverage section on the quake. We’ll be updating as we go. Note articles also translated into multiple languages – Spanish, French, Chinese, Dutch, etc.

    Thanks Dan.

  6. lkcape

    BVB, it is my understanding that the Coast Guard was doing photographic reconnaissance flights within hours of the quake.

    At least give the Government an opportunity to formulate a complete response before you criticize. Even I would give them that chance.

    Charitable aid is the easiest mobilize; I commend them for their quick response.

    I am also impressed with The Boston Haitian Reporter for their efforts in informing their community.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    The Globe blog Worldly Boston has compiled a long and valuable list of Haitian relief organizations, governmental agencies and other resources.

    And as you might expect, the Globe’s Big Picture blog comes through in a big way.

  8. Aaron Read

    What? No mention of the “coverage” all the Haitian radio pirates in Boston are providing of the earthquake?

    After all, this is supposed to be one of the few (very few) times that these pirates can allegedly justify themselves. I don’t agree with that sentiment, but I’d be interested if other people do agree with it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: The comments are open. If you’ve got some links, have at it!

  9. Dunwich

    I noticed Matt Lauer/Today say that this is “a major test” for the Obama administration. Implying that Obama could fail in ways similar to Bush failing in New Orleans, after Katrina.
    This of course is nonsense. But with major news coverage it’s likely our response will be criticized, for its lack of immediacy.

  10. Aaron Read

    These are PIRATE radio stations, by definition illegal. Many don’t have websites, and a quick Google search seems to show that those that do aren’t spending much time updating them.

    No I’m talking more about how these pirates are allegedly using their airwaves to air calls, help family members learn information, etc. I have no idea if they are…I don’t live in Boston anymore and even if I did, I don’t know what all their frequencies are since many of them come and go at odd hours. I think there’s a big Haitian pirate on 101.3FM and another on 89.3FM, but I don’t know where they’re based or how good their coverage is. There are (or were) a bunch between 1580 and 1700 AM, too.

  11. Rob McCausland

    A colleague forwarded this link and description from Anne-christine d’Adesky.

    “Our colleagues at Ushahidi have adapted their interactive mobile user-friendly online platform for crisis reporting & mapping of the situation in Haiti. People within & outside Haiti can report directly to the site via a mobile phone or computer for oral, written & video upload posts. The Ushahidi site will then map the reports & verify sources.

    “They are hoping this can help shepard people donating to relief efforts and mapping services to people urgently needing help.”

    All the press about “Citizen Journalism” seems to have supplanted what I thought was a noble endeavor – “civic journalism” – which I take loosely to mean reporting which trys to help a community collectively solve its problems. I would say this Ushahidi site falls within the definition of both citizen and civic journalism.

  12. Harrybosch

    From Voice of America: “UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said late Wednesday that at least 16 UN personnel with the peacekeeping mission in Haiti perished in the powerful earthquake that shook the Caribbean nation on Tuesday.”

    I confess my first thought is wondering whether the U.N. will hastily depart Haiti, as the Haitian government apparently cannot guarantee their safety.

  13. Phyllis Galembo

    Haitian Photographer sued by Agence France Presse (AFP) for
    “antagonistic assertion of rights”

    Barbara Hoffman
    Hilary Gish
    The Hoffman Law Firm
    (212) 873-6200
    Haitian Photographer sued by Agence France Presse (AFP) for
    “antagonistic assertion of rights”
    Award winning Haitian born photojournalist, Daniel Morel, has filed an answer
    and counterclaim to the French international wire service Agence France Presse’s lawsuit
    filed on March 26, 2010 in Manhattan federal district court. The French international
    wire service which distributes to approximately 110 countries, which provides text,
    photographs, videos and graphics to customers on a worldwide basis, asserts that Mr.
    Morel “has made demands that amount to an antagonistic assertion of rights in his
    photographs of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010 at 4:54 p.m.
    taken in the hour immediately following the quake. The Complaint asks the Court to
    declare AFP had the right to use Mr. Morel’s images without authorization or
    compensation and further claims damages for commercial disparagement based on
    Morel’s attorney Barbara Hoffman’s cease and desist letters to AFP subscribers,
    customers, and clients, including Getty Images, Inc., the Boston Globe, the Denver Post,
    Time, Inc., Vanity Fair, USA Today, and the Age, Australia requesting that they cease
    and desist from the display on their websites, and online photo galleries, the images
    licensed from Agence France Presse or Getty and in the case of the Washington Post,
    correct the misattribution to a Lisandro Suero.
    Mr. Morel’s answer and counterclaims admit that his lawyer sent such letters and
    further argues that AFP states no claim against him. Mr. Morel’s counterclaims assert
    that AFP willfully or in reckless disregard of his copyright and other intellectual property
    rights infringed thirteen (13) of the images of the earthquake in Haiti by distribution,
    license and sale of the photographs to its subscribers, clients and customers, with a credit
    to AFP and Getty Images and that these images were credited incorrectly to one Lisandro
    Suero, tweeting from the Dominican Republic at the time of the earthquake and with no
    prior history as a photographer.
    Mr. Morel’s complaint also asserts claims against Getty Images, and CBS and
    ABC. Getty Images, an image distribution company is associated with AFP to distribute
    and license images in the United States. The latter two news companies, it is claimed,
    have independently infringed Mr. Morel’s copyright in seven (7) and nine (9) images
    respectively, in a variety of ways.
    When the earthquake struck, Daniel Morel was with an American journalist, Eric
    Parker in a school in Grand Rue, Port au Prince. Mr. Morel had been teaching the young
    students for the past three days on how to make their own Facebook pages and Mr. Morel
    was taking photographs to put on their Facebook pages, while his friend was buying art
    from the students.
    He states in his complaint that, “I was about ready to leave and the earth started
    shaking. I got out in the street, it looked like the street was hit by 500 cruise missiles at
    the same time. My journalist friend was buried. After we dug him out, we hit the street
    to obtain daylight shots. Everybody was panicked. Sobbing and dazed, people wandered
    around the street. It was rush hour. Lots of people were dead. Then I photographed until
    dark. I saw a lot of injured and dead—people crying for help. Buildings collapsed—the
    Cathedral of St. Trinity, the Cathedral, the Iron Market, the Presidential Palace, the
    Palace of Justice, my father’s bakery. The principal manifestations, institutions, and
    symbols of my Haitian childhood were destroyed in less than a minute. There were
    aftershocks every 15 to 20 minutes which lasted from three to five seconds.”
    Few professional journalists and photographers were in Haiti at the time of the
    quake and even fewer had access to the internet. Mr. Morel’s Haiti earthquake
    photographs, including the thirteen, were among the first photographs by a professional
    photojournalist taken before sunset on January 12, 2010 to show the evolving tragedy to
    the world.
    Mr. Morel’s complaint further describes the situation on the ground: “At sunset, it
    was dark, there was no electricity or communication—all phone networks were down.
    Mr. Morel, nevertheless from the still-standing landmark Oloffson Hotel, with the
    assistance of Isabel Morse, the daughter of his friend Richard A. Morse, manager of the
    hotel, was able to use a laptop to connect to the internet and have Ms. Morse open a
    Twitter account with the username “PhotoMorel” for him at 5:20 p.m.”
    Mr. Morel intended to retain copyright in and credit to his images, at the same
    time he informed the world of the disaster and advertised his images for license. Perhaps,
    it’s just the nature of an unfolding disaster that early pictures tend to be more sensational
    and less about telling a story. Daniel Morel was interested in licensing his images if the
    price, terms and conditions were right. He was not interested in selling or licensing
    cheap. It was enough that he and the world were witness to what had happened and what
    was happening. Later, he would tell the full and complete story of the Haiti Earthquake
    and the impact on the history of Haiti.
    Apparently on or about 5:28 p.m., Lisandro Suero of the Dominican Republic,
    pirated Daniel Morel’s thirteen images and put them on his Twitter page.
    Daniel Morel’s claim then goes on to state that at approximately 9:45 p.m. EST,
    AFP uploads the earthquake images from Lisandro Suero’s account, without Mr. Morel’s
    knowledge, or permission. He alleges, on information and belief, that AFP conducted no
    investigation into the identity, profession, authorship or location of Lisandro Suero. The
    images were distributed to subscribers clients and customers worldwide.
    Mr. Morel alleges that at 2:06 a.m. on January 13, 2010, Ben Fathers (34Benjie)
    of AFP tweeted to Mr. Morel as follows: “Hi Daniel, great pictures from such a difficult
    environment. I work for AFP, please e-mail”
    One image seen below, appears on January 13, 2010 the front page of major
    newspapers worldwide, credited to “AFP/Getty Lisandro Suero.”
    On January 21, 2010 blogger, Michael David Murphy in an article entitled, “Does
    Haiti’s Earthquake call for a new Photojournalism” ( states, “if there’s
    an iconic photograph from the disaster, it might belong to Daniel Morel, a Haitian
    photographer who lived through the earthquake.” Subsequently, Mr. Morel was
    credited on some blogs and elsewhere for the image, and AFP claims to have issued a
    credit change, of name but not affiliation (i.e. AFP), and a “kill” for “copyright reasons.”
    Mr. Morel’s answer and counterclaims for copyright infringement, removal of
    copyright management information, and false or misleading statements of attribution or
    affiliation against AFP and Getty request several million dollars in damages for willful
    infringement. Mr. Morel’s complaint alleges that Getty licensed the Earthquake images
    to charities, magazines, media outlets, TV and websites, all for a fee and without Mr.
    Morel’s authorization. The 63 page counterclaim with exhibits includes examples of the
    photographs on websites and elsewhere that continue, such as in web photo galleries, in
    the New York Times, National Geographic, Time Magazine, and the Jehovah’s Witness
    Watch Tower, licensed on information and belief from Getty.
    As one blogger noted, conflict photographers on the first flights may be more
    experienced in reacting to events rather than telling a story. Twitter offers a real
    opportunity for independent distribution of images by photojournalists like Daniel Morel
    without the need to freelance for wire services, enter into license agreements, or even
    worse, contribute “work for hire” to news services. However, not if images are free for
    the taking for all media and commercial uses.
    If the argument of AFP/Getty were to prevail and such activity were to become
    the norm it would ruin the livelihoods of photojournalists who live on licensing streams
    and harm the interests of those content owners who rely on fair compensation for their
    work in order to support their creative endeavors. Licensing is an important source of
    revenue for content creators, especially true for photographers and photojournalists in
    these difficult times where cheap stock images provided by amateurs, or “citizen
    journalists,” compete with quality images taken by photojournalists like Mr. Morel.
    Assignments are limited and even the Magnum Photo agency, according to reports, has
    created a fund for its photographers to document Haiti, apparently not obtaining funds
    The rule of law that AFP/Getty apparently argues here essentially would permit
    someone to take and commercialize a content owner’s property without authorization,
    attribution or reasonable compensation, undermining the long-established practice of
    using such revenue streams to support the ongoing creation of new content by these
    In an article entitled “Fair Game: Intellectual Property in the Digital Age,”
    ( blogger Francis Reynolds reflecting on the fact that the
    technological means to plunder grow more prevalent everyday, causing some to question
    copyright, comments “while society may seem to be moving in that direction, no matter
    how much this “plundering” may seem to chip away at our intellectual hierarchies, the
    politics of allusion and borrowing continues to be shaped by the existing power dynamics
    of ownership. That’s why advocates of a world of free and therefore free-flowing content
    sometimes risk shortchanging those who have historically been wronged by cultural and
    intellectual appropriation or outright theft.”

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