The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jun 29, 2011

A rock in one hand, cell phone in the other: Crowdsourcing crisis info in the Middle East

Posted by Annie Shreffler

If you take a look around these days at any event, you can be sure to spot mobile phones taking pics and video – allowing anyone to share news in real time. So how does our society adjust to gather and disseminate accurate information?

That was a session topic at last week’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, featuring Mohamed Nanabhay, head of New Media at Al Jazeera and Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab and co-founder of the crowdsourcing project Safecast, which aggregates radiation levels in post-quake Japan.

Nanabhay described how Al Jazeera relied on citizen reports to chronicle the Arab Spring. The evolution of their news process over the last six months offers valuable lessons for news orgs that want to conduct effective crowdsourced reporting.

After showing a montage of Al Jazeera television coverage of the Arab Spring, Nanabhay said, “What’s immediately apparent is that some of that footage is from our cameras, but some of it is not.” Because Al Jazeera did not have a correspondent in Tunisia, he used many videos he found on Facebook.

An incredible dynamic grew out of Nanabhay’s system of vetting and posting videos he found online. The more Al Jazeera played people’s videos on television, the more people recorded videos and sent them to the newsroom. Secondly, the more videos that Al Jazeera aired, the safer their contributors became, as authorities tracking video makers were overwhelmed by the volume.

Nanabhay described this newsgathering evolution as a change from the Spectacle of Dissent, where only extreme, violent events could garner media attention, to the Spectacle of the Spectacular, or Tahrir Square.  Despite the Egyptian state trying to cast protesters as extremists, people could see for themselves the families, grandparents and young people on the street demanding change, and they joined in.

Attempts by the Egyptian government to disrupt Al Jazeera’s broadcast are a measure of their impact.  They arrested journalists and tried to block satellite coverage, but other television stations began to rebroadcast Al Jazeera 24 hours a day.

“There was no way for the regime to control this force,” Nanabhay said. “The Spectacle had a life of its own.”

Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, wasn’t the first person in Tunisia set himself on fire - but it was the first time it was captured and placed online. The video of his spectacle of dissent played on Al Jazeera’s live channel, and the people of the Middle East had a revelation.

“One of the participants inside [Tunisia] told one of our journalists, ‘I have a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other.’ People recognized the power of the media and understood how they could use it.”

Despite limited access, limited resources and limited editorial scope, part of a news organization’s work, according to Nanabhay should be to collect, process, synthesize and broadcast the information created by the public. But crowdsourced reporting shouldn’t be seen as a cheap alternative to newsgathering. Many newsrooms try to “engage” their audience, and end up with responses that don’t enrich the storytelling process, he said, illustrating his point by showing this video by the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb:]]

After the panel, Nanabhay spoke to us about using Youtube to distribute news and the new Al Jazeera Stream. See the video below for more.

In an upcoming post, we’ll write about Ito’s work crowdsourcing radiation levels in Japan.

Previous conference coverage;

Civic mobilization: putting down the screens and putting on a T-shirt

Civic fictions: the limits and opportunities of online personas:

Zuckerman: open media’s doors to the world

Annie Shreffler is a freelance journalists writing about the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference for Knight Foundation.

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