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Aug. 31, 2012, 11:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Hurricane Isaac coverage shows the promise of a hybrid model for news

News organizations have always stepped up in times of natural disaster, the University of Southern Mississippi professor argues. But the interweaving of professional and citizen journalism can push beyond the general to the specific.

A lot of hand-wringing goes into wondering what the future of journalism will look like. Will digital or multimedia journalism serve readers better than print? What role will social media play in the future? How will so-called citizen journalists and professionals coexist?

I think we got a glimpse of that future with coverage of Hurricane Isaac, which battered southeast Louisiana and the coasts of Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. And that future — at least for readers — is bright. It’s a future where news is multiplatform, easy to search for personalized reports, and up to the second.

As I experienced the storm firsthand from my new hometown in southern Mississippi, I saw the emergence of a hybrid form of media coverage. It involved traditional news organizations — newspapers, TV, and radio — offering up-to-the second updates on the storm, which while only a Category 1 hurricane led to massive power failures, flooding, and damage. These news organizations (both local and national) offered traditional reports through text stories on their websites and through lists of such things as road and school closings — the updates any news organization worth its salt would have provided in the old days. But they also used Twitter, Facebook, and in some cases their own apps to provide weather updates, explain the science of the storm, and help people make decisions about whether to evacuate or ride out the storm in areas where evacuations weren’t mandatory. To cover the full impact of the storm, they offered still and video images shot by professionals side by side with raw footage from residents that, while perhaps less polished, still told a story and told it well.

Coupled with this coverage were efforts by non-traditional media sources, such as Hurricane Tracker. This app for smartphones offered detailed storm maps, National Hurricane Center updates, and threat-level maps that were easy to read even for a hurricane novice like me. The American Red Cross also offered an app the sends alerts right to your phone for whatever communities you preselect.

People say it takes a village to raise a child. I’d say this storm offered an example of how it takes a village of different types of media to cover a storm well — and keep people informed. There’s plenty of room for both traditional media and non-traditional media in this hybrid model.

The mix of media offered me — who had just moved to hurricane country three weeks before the storm — a media experience that I’d argue would be unmatched in the old days of print, TV, and radio. For example, just after 2 p.m. Thursday, I saw a report on Twitter that a possible tornado had touched down in the part of Gulfport, where my husband and I are in the process of buying a new home. Panicked, I searched social media to find out exactly where this tornado was.

From my hotel room 70 miles from the coast, where my family and I were waiting out the storm, I quickly patched together from both traditional media reports and citizen tweeters what was happening. Searching Twitter for the hashtag #tornado and Orange Grove (the section of Gulfport where I hopefully soon will live), I came across a tweet from a weather chaser with a link to a  video of winds demolishing an under-construction home. The tweet gave no address, but another tweeter reported a tornado was spotted in Orange Grove. My home is built, so I knew it wasn’t mine. But I was worried it was in my subdivision, where many homes are in various stages of construction. It only took a bit more searching, mostly on my iPhone, to find out that the tornado-like winds caused damage quite a ways from the house that will soon be ours. Later, a TV report confirmed the address for the under-construction house, so I knew for sure it wasn’t near ours.

News organizations have always covered disasters well. What’s new is that today’s media organizations have so many more tools to do an even better job of telling the story. Citizen journalists augment that coverage by offering tips and experiences that, while unconfirmed, can still help people make sense of what’s going on. Without social media, online news, and apps, I would have been floundering trying to find out what was going on near the house I will soon own. Miles from the storm, I would have had to rely on TV and radio reports until the daily newspaper came out. The problem with this approach is it’s general, not specific to my needs. Thanks to advances in media — and a new hybrid model of professional and amateur news gatherers — I could target what information I sought, rather than just accept the generalized view the media doled out to me.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that some of these talented journalists who covered the storm so well may be losing their jobs as part of a massive digital restructuring at the newspapers for which they work. That’s tragic. But my point is that for readers, the digital product that news organizations can produce today is a better product than they could produce in years past. So for readers, the future of journalism looks promising indeed.

POSTED     Aug. 31, 2012, 11:50 a.m.
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