Online Citizen Journalists Respond to South Asian Disaster

The earthquake and tsunamis that swept across South Asia nearly two weeks ago have killed almost 150,000 people, by the latest estimate. But with each passing day, fresh numbers of the dead and displaced continue to emerge.

The television screens showed footage of water-logged coastal cities and towns along the Indian Ocean and there was talk of thousands of people, vehicles and furniture swept out to sea.

Then there was curiosity. Giant walls of water. What is that like? How did it happen? Did anyone see it coming? Can I help?

The answers were in text messages, jerky amateur footage and online. Everyday technologies like digital cameras, mobile phones and weblogs have become the source of riveting accounts of survivors all the way from Aceh, Indonesia — the epicentre of the quake — to the ravaged coastal towns of Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

A vivid picture began to emerge from what Neil McIntosh, the assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited, terms a “growing army of citizen journalists.”

Suddenly, it was possible to see first-hand what photographer Helmut Issels saw from his hotel balcony in Phuket and to understand the problems and politics of relief work as volunteer Amit Varma encounters them in Tamil Nadu, India.

Peter Griffin, a blogger and writer from Mumbai, India set up a blog just hours after news of the disaster reached him. Two other bloggers, Rohit Gupta and Dina Mehta, also in Mumbai, helped him put the information in place. And very soon after, the blogging community around the world rallied to set up what has now become South-east Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog (SEA-EAT). This is among the best online resources about the tsunami, with information on the latest news in every region, a missing persons page that makes innovative use of a free, blog-like photo-sharing tool and links to relief efforts.

For the first time, hundreds of ordinary people produced powerful coverage of a huge news event, along with traditional media. This army of citizen journalists continues to grow, connecting those who want to help with those who need it.

“We realised that people were looking for information and there was not much out there. Our idea was to set up a clearing house for all the information that we were collecting,” Rohit Gupta, 28, told OJR in a phone conversation from Mumbai, India.

Gupta is something of a renegade, working as a freelance writer even though he has a degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology. Gupta was fired via text message from his previous job as a columnist with Mid-Day, a Mumbai-based afternoon paper, for a comment about how the sales department was influencing editorial content. He met Mehta, a marketing consultant at World Changing, a site they both blogged for.

In just 48 hours, the SEA-EAT blog had over 200 volunteer bloggers posting from the affected regions as well as from around the globe, Gupta said. “It was a smart mob organising a humanitarian response,” he said.

A team of translators ensured that the blog was also available in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish.

“Google gave us a link, people started to find the information that they were looking for on our site and the traffic just grew,” an exhausted Gupta said. He has been helping run the blog with almost no rest. “I sleep when I can no longer stay awake,” he said.

The blog clocked up over 100,000 site visits in three days. Gupta said that another blog, ChiensSansFrontiers, is being used to post text messages from volunteers in Chennai, Sri Lanka and Port Blair.

“A friend of mine started getting text messages from Sanjay, a TV producer in Sri Lanka who had survived the tsunami and was helping out in relief operations. There were no reporters around where he was, and I started posting his text messages on the blog,” Gupta said.

Sanjay, who goes by the online name of Morquendi, was one of the first Sri Lankan voices to be heard outside the region and his shocked first-hand accounts blitzed the web at break-neck speed and made it into the next day’s news.

His was not the only voice, however. The web was quickly inundated with survivor accounts, posted via e-mail or text messaging.

People were sending e-mails vivid with descriptions of three-storey high waves from Sri Lanka, Chennai and Phuket and newspapers everywhere gave importance to these survivor accounts.

“Most of the people who were reporting their experiences were stuck between being journalists and human beings. Many of them were volunteering at the scene, they were seeing dead bodies and so the blogs were intensely personal and emotional,” Gupta said.

McIntosh believes that in its decentralised, unorganised way, this new blog world has done an amazing job in the last nine days.

“It has reported and reassured, breaking the news in words, photographs and sounds and video. Then it moved the story on — at the point much of the mainstream media was only beginning to catch on to the full scale of the disaster — to tell more of the human tale of the tragic aftermath, and help the rest of us donate towards the aid effort,” he said.

Mainstream news organisations also set up pages to document the first-hand accounts that were pouring in. By the end of the first week, the BBC Online Web site, which dedicated an entire page to first-person e-mail accounts of the disaster, had received about 50,000 e-mails. Its message board saw over 400,000 visitors.

Spokesperson Hannah Howard for BBC Online said there were four main categories of emails: “People from the UK trying to get information on friends and family in South East Asia; people in Asia e-mailing in to say they were safe; people sharing their stories and experiences; and appeals for help.” The Web site also posted a list of agencies to direct people to available help.

“The very moving postings contributed a first-hand account of how those involved in the tragic events felt and the things they had experienced,” Howard said.

Newspapers were also quick to notice the role these citizen journalists had played in reporting the disaster — their posts were fast becoming essential reading. The New York Times was one of the first to point to the compelling reportage on tsunami blogs.

The Wall Street Journal argued that the tsunami films may be a break-out moment for video blogs.

The Independent said, “Never before has there been a major international story where television news crews have been so emphatically trounced in their coverage by amateurs wielding their own cameras.” Sandy MacIntyre, the director of news for AP Television News (APTN), an agency that supplies 500 broadcasters worldwide, told the newspaper that APTN instructed its staff to hunt down amateur footage.

Geographically closer to the disaster, The Straits Times, Singapore’s national newspaper, continues extensive coverage of the tsunami — from first-person accounts to reporting the work that bloggers have done.

Elaine Young, a reporter for the paper, was on holiday near Phi-Phi Island with her husband James when the tsunami struck. The couple survived only because they were able to clamber up the side of a hill as waves engulfed the beach. Young returned to her hotel in Phuket eight hours later to find her cell phone bursting with messages from worried friends and family.

The Straits Times asked her to report her experience, and Young found a computer with an Internet connection that was still working in a lobby at her hotel. “I just sat down and wrote what happened. Everything was so fresh in my head and James was helping me along. I was really stressed though and kept shouting at him to just let me concentrate. He said I had been calm all day up until I started writing. There were all these people behind me who were waiting to use the computer,” she said. Young’s story — the story of a survivor, not a journalist — made it into the next morning’s newspaper.

The paper’s technology supplement, Digital Life, (registration required) documented how blogs aided the coverage of the disaster.

In his e-mail interview with OJR, the Guardian Unlimited’s Neil McIntosh, a keen observer of online media and technology, said blogs have had a big impact on traditional news media online.

“News sites that embrace the bloggers and their unique content can still flourish; those that don’t will, I suspect, become less relevant than their more enlightened peers,” he said.

For instance, McIntosh said, the Guardian’s magazine section, G2, gathered together some of the best blog posts to acknowledge the superb content that was being generated on blogs and to take that content to a far wider audience.

In McIntosh’s opinion, the tsunami has moved bloggers away from the realm of politics and geekdom and established them as a serious force. “I think, from here on in, we can expect big stories in populous areas to be heavily blogged by those nearby, assuming communications infrastructure remains available.”

McIntosh said that it would be obscene to remember the tsunami as anything other than a huge natural disaster, a human tragedy on an unimaginable scale.

“But for those watching this small, comparatively insignificant world of media, this may also be remembered as a time when citizen reporting, through the force of its huge army of volunteers and their simple type and publish weblog mechanisms, finally found its voice, and delivered in a way the established media simply could not,” he said.

About Shefali Srinivas

Shefali Srinivas is a journalist who has worked in Bangalore, Los Angeles, Cape Town and Mumbai.
She was OJR's international editor from 1999 to 2001.
She has worked as assistant director of the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on
Women in Mumbai and is now a reporter for The Straits Times in Singapore.


  1. Established news sites can become gathering places for “citizen journalists” in crises like this, but only if editors at those news sites think ahead and create software — and procedures — for handling this type of content before the crisis happens.

    Late last year, Anthony Moor of the Orlando Sentinel wrote in OJR about how the Sentinel used reader input to help tell the story of the hurricanes that battered Florida in 2004. More news organizations would do well to think about the potential for significant user input, from around the world, in planning how they’ll handle inevitable future major news events like these.