Creating social bonds in the face of disaster

Posted on May 25, 2011 by Janet Coats

The work of the New Media Journalism Initiative is focused on helping journalism's innovators in two ways: by enabling connection through networks and by helping to develop the tools and techniques that can lead to sustainability.

When we talk about sustainability for journalism, we naturally focus on financial matters. It is the collapse of the old advertising models that supported traditional journalism that has drawn the most attention and worry when we think about what journalism needs to survive and thrive.

While financial sustainability is vitally important, increasing I'm thinking about the other elements that need to go into sustainable journalism models. One of the ones I've written a fair amount about here is the need to create strong, reciprocal bonds with the community -- the need for engagement.

There is no time when journalists and communities engage with each other more than during a disaster. The response to the recent tornadoes in the Southeast and in Joplin, Mo., are showing us new ways of building that engagement using social media tools. What I find interesting from my spectator's chair in Sarasota is how these interactions are crossing the news ecosystem, drawing together established news organizations with grassroots efforts to provide help and support.

The grassroots effort that has garnered the most attention and mainstream news coverage is the Facebook page "Pictures and Documents Found After The April 27, 2011, Tornadoes.'' The effort was started by Patty Bullion of Lester, Ala., after she found family pictures and other documents scattered in her yard by the winds. To date, more than 3,000 photos and documents have been posted to the page in an effort to reunite them with their owners.

Patty Bullion's project has drawn coverage from CNN, The New York Times and lots of local media. It also drew a partner in the form of the Shelbyville, Tenn., Times-Gazette. The Times-Gazette offered to serve as a collection point for the community; the newspaper staff would collect photos and other documents and upload them to the Facebook page for folks who either didn't have the time or the know-how to do it themselves.

As of last week, the newspaper had collected and posted some 400 images.

Some news organizations would have tried to take over the effort, to brand it with their own name and image, to tell a community member with an idea and the passion to implement it that she should "leave it to the professionals.'' The act of engagement committed by the Times-Gazette is, I think, much more powerful. It says to the community, "Here is someone doing something good. Here is how we can help.'' It is the newspaper as part of the choir, not the conductor of it.

The Joplin, Mo., Globe took a different approach to using social tools to help people connect after the storm there. When the newspaper staff noticed that people were using the paper's Facebook page to post inquiries about friends and family missing in the storm's aftermath, they decided to set up a separate page dedicated to the reunification efforts.

By watching how the community was reacting, the newspaper was able to redirect its own resources to better meet the most desperate of needs -- the need to know if the people you care about are all right.

As noted in a story by Adam Hochberg on about the Globe, grassroots efforts have sprung up in the community as well. The lack of coordination between grassroots and professional social media outreach in the wake of disasters is drawing some concern from the professionals at this, such as the Red Cross. The Red Cross has a registry called "Safe and Well'' that provides searchable information about storm victims and survivors; the organization also is working with Google to use its Person Finder tool to further strengthen their registry.

Hochberg notes that a number of the Joplin Facebook pages have begun linking to the Red Cross, and that's good. I would offer one caveat to the "professionals'' at disaster response: Don't just wait for grassroots efforts to connect with you. Find ways to reach out to go where the conversation is happening. The grassroots efforts have an authenticity that institutional approaches sometimes lack. Newspapers learned the hard way that claiming institutional expertise is not a guarantee that the community will recognize your authority, or respond to it.

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