Citizen Journalism and Mumbai

In the background of the shock and horror of the Mumbai attacks was another story about the rise of citizen journalism over mainstream media. We now have access to an array of tools to not only consume information but disseminate it ourselves. The media in India was criticized for its lackluster coverage of the Mumbai attacks. But are these problems that can be compensated for by citizen journalism?

Twitter was probably the biggest player in this discussion, so far as to merit rumors of the Indian government asking people to stop tweeting potentially sensitive information (Times Online). It seems like these rumors, despite having made it into the mainstream media, are probably unsubstantiated. The fact that the rumors were started on Twitter, got picked up by the mainstream media, and then debunked on a blog is an interesting feedback loop that illuminates how mainstream media and citizen journalism can interact with each other.

What made Twitter so prominent was its ability to immediately disseminate information, live and from-the-ground. And customized streams based on hash tags (#mumbai) or location (near:Mumbai) made it easy to find the information. Confused of Calcutta has an excellent post rounding up some of the best articles on Twitter and the Mumbai attacks. There’s also an interesting discussion that sprang up in the comments. Mayank Dhingra writes:

While following the #mumbai I realized that how big an echo chamber had it become, every third-forth update was a copy of a previous one(Noise). Similarly there were lots of rumors of sorts. Its particularly difficult to filter out the real and important news in participatory media and as some suggested its time we have an ethics guide for “citizen journalism”.

Joanne McNeil at Tomorrow Museum expresses a similar sentiment and suggests that mainstream media deserves more credit:

Like most of you with access to a television/computer Wednesday afternoon, I was glued to the news. But soon, #Mumbai was crowded with far too cut+pastes to be of much relevance (unless one was searching by location.) It’s like how everyone will join a Facebook group for a good cause — it takes 5 seconds to “retweet” breaking news. Then, there was the bizarre back and forth over whether the Indian government was asking for people to stop tweeting “sensitive information.” If anything impressed me that night, it was the network evening news, who appeared to be the first to put it all in context.

Another thing that is striking is the immediacy but overwhelming nature of all this information. As Alexander Wolfe notes in Wolfe’s Den Blog , the #mumbai tweets from the days of the attack are buried into archives hundreds of pages back. The sheer volume of information makes it, at this point, unsearchable to everyone except the most patient of researchers.

All this focus on Twitter in the role of citizen journalism obscures the fact that Twitter isn’t actually built as a breaking news source. As a listening tool, it’s almost the perfect tool for surveying the opinions of a many people at once, but this aggregation 140 character tweets has its limits. It can’t put into context all of the complex issues surrounding a terrorist attack of this nature. (Though to be fair, confusion was generally the rule for everyone including the mainstream media.) Dina Mehta’s from-the-ground commentary on Mumbai attacks hits the nail on the head on why Twitter was so important for this event, though not necessarily for its ability to disseminate information.

If we want to look toward great examples of citizen journalism, how about this Google Maps mash-up of locations attacked, populated with photostreams and the latest news updates. This Wired blog post also points toward the constantly updated Wikipedia page and Vinu’s Flickr photostream. Global Voices special coverage page is also a fantastic resource for perspectives on major global events from around the world. So citizen journalism does play a vital role in the future of news and Digital Natives themselves will certainly have a role to play.

-Sarah Zhang