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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.

Social media get results

Doug Haslam explains how a tweet about an icy sidewalk in Newton made its way to the Newton Tab’s Wicked Local site and then to the mayor’s office. The end result: no more icy sidewalk.

Boston Media Tweeters goes 1.0

Boston Media Tweeters today exits beta and is ready for prime time.

What is it? It’s a wiki that lists Greater Boston journalists, including independent bloggers engaged in some form of journalism. I’ve made it a permanent addition to the Media Nation navigation bar, and I hope it will grow into a useful directory.

Feel free to add yourself or someone else. And enjoy.

Are you a Boston media tweeter?

I’ve started a wiki called Boston Media Tweeters. I’ve seeded it with a few obvious choices so that you can tell how it should be formatted. Depending on how it goes, I may make it a permanent part of Media Nation. So, please, if you fit the criteria (you must be engaged in journalism of some sort, and I won’t allow institutional feeds), go ahead and add yourself to the list.

Style council

My piece for the Guardian on the Fake AP Stylebook has now been posted. Here is my earlier interview with the co-founders, Mark Hale and Ken Lowery.

Should “anal retentive” be hyphenated?

fake_ap_stylebookTwo weeks ago today, the Twitter feed Fake AP Stylebook was launched upon an unsuspecting planet.

Journalists who had long labored under the tyranny of the Associated Press Stylebook know that they’re supposed to use 1950s-style postal abbreviations for states, spell out the numbers one through nine and abbreviate street when it’s an address (17 Smith St.) but not a place (Smith Street).

Until now, though, we couldn’t be quite sure why the word Bible is always capitalized. It is, the Fakesters solemnly explain, a matter of pragmatism: “You don’t want to get letters from those people.”

Over the weekend I reached out to the Fakesters. Callie Kimball at makes it sound like unearthing their identities was a journalistic coup worthy of Woodward and Bernstein, but I just asked them, and they told me. The founders, Mark Hale, 31, and Ken Lowery, 28, may soon have a book deal. If they are not the first to parlay Twitter into fame and fortune, they may well be the quickest.

The Fake AP Stylebook is also the subject of my column in the Guardian this week. It should go up later today tomorrow; I’ll link to it once it’s live.

The following e-mail transcript has been lightly edited, including (gasp) for AP style. Turns out I know it better than they do.

Media Nation: Who are you?

Mark: I’m co-creator Mark Hale, an Indiana native living in Louisville, Ky., with my fiancée and our menagerie of pets. I’ve left college twice, the first time from a Japanese studies program. The second time I left from a journalism program that included an internship as editor of the school paper, which is what led me to the simple joy of the real AP Stylebook. My interest in journalism coincided nicely with the weblog boom of the early 2000s, and I began commenting on comic-book-related sites and eventually started my own. Ken and I met through comments on our weblogs and have been acquaintances since. We’ve been in near-constant contact the last two years or so.

Ken: I’m Ken Lowery, a copy editor for the United Methodist Reporter, based in Dallas. I’m also a freelance movie critic and have wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid.

The rest of our team (whom we call our Bureau Chiefs) are made up of journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, graphic designers, a couple English professors, a professional librarian, a lawyer and others. We’re a diverse group, but we all like to write and we’re all big huge nerds.

MN: How did you come up with the idea of doing the Fake AP Stylebook?

Mark: Ken and I were chatting two weeks ago, and he showed me the feed for the real AP Stylebook on Twitter. With the proliferation of “fake” accounts, labeled and otherwise, I remarked to him, “I can’t tell if I’m sad or relieved that this isn’t a joke feed.” Ken got hit by a lightning bolt, he wrote a post about how television shows are denoted and I wrote one about Dr Pepper, each on our own feeds. Then he decided we should start it on its own feed, and off we went.

MN: Have you heard from people at the Associated Press? What have they told you?

Ken: We’ve spotted a few AP writers in our “response” feed, and they’re fans. We were also approached early in the feed’s life by a curious AP reporter who wanted to do a story, but that ultimately didn’t go anywhere.

Naturally, if and when the book becomes a reality, we’ll be changing up the title.

MN: You’ve been at this less than two weeks, and by Sunday you already had nearly 34,000 followers on Twitter. Are you surprised at the way this has taken off, or was world domination part of your plan from the beginning?

Mark: Tuesday, Nov. 4, will be the first day of our third week.

“Surprised” is pretty mild. We had no plans other than making each other laugh at first, and then dragging our friends into it so they could make us laugh, too. Given the talent of the people involved, I’m not surprised people like it; I’m just surprised there are so many. The number of followers is nearing the population of my small Indiana hometown.

MN: Not to get political on you, but is wingnut one word or two? Or should it be hyphenated?

Mark: Typically, no hyphen. Capitalize when referring to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure Wingnut.

MN: What’s next?

Mark: We and the Bureau Chiefs are currently pulling together a sample chapter as part of a book proposal. We’ve been approached by three agents, and have finally signed on with one.

We hope to work in a good deal of the Twitter material, but so far we seem to be cranking out original material at a good clip. Other than that, we’re going to continue trying to make people laugh for free on the Internet. That’s where the real money is these days, after all.

(Not) tweeting from City Hall

OK, one quick one, then I’m out of here.

The Boston Herald today follows up its social-media story with more from Dave Wedge and Jessica Heslam and a column by Margery Eagan.

In order to bolster her argument that Amy Derjue, spokeswoman for Boston City Council president Mike Ross, is tweeting when she ought to be working, Eagan quotes something Derjue posted on Monday at 10:11 p.m.

I’m not here to defend Derjue, Mac Daniel or David Isberg, who have created something of an appearance problem for their bosses, even though I’ve seen no real evidence that they’ve been slacking off. (In fact, I think Heslam gets at the appearance problem nicely here.)

But quoting something a city employee posted at a time when she was clearly off-duty is out of bounds.

Tweeting from City Hall

Amy Derjue (from Twitter)

Amy Derjue (from Twitter)

Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has some big-time fun with the Boston Herald’s story on city employees who use Facebook and Twitter during work hours. Gaffin reproduces a photo of the Herald reporters who wrote the story, Jessica Heslam and Dave Wedge, from — yes — Heslam’s Facebook account.

“What are they using them for?” asks Gaffin. “What are they hiding? Ooh, insinuation is fun!”

Kidding aside, you have to admit that there’s an appearance problem with the way some city employees are using social media. Heslam and Wedge focus on Amy Derjue, a former Boston Magazine blogger who was hired earlier this year to serve as City Council president Mike Ross’ $39,000-a-year spokeswoman.

Derjue is something of a young-woman-about-town, and I follow her on both Facebook and Twitter. (If you page through her 340 Facebook friends, you’ll see a wide array of local media and political folks, including Gaffin, me — and Wedge.) Some of her posts make me cringe, and Heslam and Wedge dutifully provide some cringe-worthy examples. But I’ve never heard anyone suggest she wasn’t smart, hard-working and energetic. For what it’s worth, she has complained to me on behalf of her boss, which suggests dedication to her job.

More to the point, most of us — and you can be sure Derjue falls into this category — are never fully off work. If we’re expected to tend to business when we’re off-duty, then we have to be allowed some fun during the formal workday as well. And, as Gaffin writes, “Why, it takes sheer seconds to post something to Facebook or Twitter.”

An aside that may help illustrate my point. Yesterday John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., tweeted that he was being yelled at by a “legislator who resigned in disgrace.” When I responded at how impressed I was with his multi-tasking, he replied, “Yes, tweeting while yelling. What else am I supposed to do? Listen?” This was not a private conversation — it was seen by all 1,196 of Robinson’s followers and all 2,019 of mine. Welcome to 2009.

Ross tells the Herald that he hired Derjue in part for her social-networking expertise. And, indeed, Ross has a pretty lively Twitter feed and Facebook account. For Derjue to post to her personal sites while working on her boss’ would, as Gaffin says, take “sheer seconds.” You can question her judgment, but her social-media activities are not evidence of dereliction.

Derjue seems to have partly disabled her Facebook account (I could be wrong; Facebook mystifies and annoys me), and she hasn’t posted to Twitter since last night. No doubt she’s licking her wounds at the moment. I’m interested to see how she’ll respond.

How news orgs should use social media

Why, to cater to their audience’s every whim, of course. So kudos to WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), which responded to my whining on Twitter about the lack of a downloadable MP3 of last night’s Massachusetts Senate debate by posting one this afternoon.

I was able to download it onto my iPod and listen while driving home. The experience was enlightening — and, no, I definitely don’t mean the debate.

Boston Phoenix sues Facebook

Now this is interesting. My old friends at the Boston Phoenix are suing Facebook on a claim of patent infringement. Adam Gaffin has the details at Universal Hub.

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