CNN Relies on Social Media in Haiti Earthquake Coverage

Firstly, my thoughts are with all the people suffering in Haiti after this horrible tragedy.  The Red Cross tweeted that you can help by texting “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to relief efforts.  If you know of any other ways to help, let me know and I will add it here.

This just went up on Mashable… 9 Ways to help Haiti

As I was just watching the news on CNN, there was a clear presence of social media in their reports on Haiti.  In fact, it was ALL social media.

They were pulling pictures from twitter and facebook, they used google earth to show you where the earthquake took place.  The only piece of investigative journalism they did was interview the people posting up twitpics!  I also saw other media sources commenting on pictures, asking the person where they took the picture? (the extent of their background check)?

They provided literally NO original content.  The CNN employee sitting at a computer monitoring social networks was doing the same thing as any other web savvy user seeking out news.  They were as investigative as anyone using twitter search as they filled in time by scrolling through the same 10 pictures they found on twitter, and teaching us about earthquakes…

It’s great that they’re implementing social content into their coverage, but now it just seems like they’re relying on it…

When social networks become an investigative journalist’s best resource, do they still have a purpose?  Are they no better than automatic filters, choosing which information we get to see?

Note: I realize that this may be an exceptional case.  Among other variables, as I was watching the news, it was still very unsafe for reporters travel into Haiti.  Still, I believe it’s a possible trend worth discussing.

EDIT: I just want to point out that this post was meant to discuss a possible trend.  It was not a statement of the current situation.  The day after writing this, once CNN was able to get to Haiti, Anderson Cooper showed us that good journalism still exists and how important it still is.

37 thoughts on “CNN Relies on Social Media in Haiti Earthquake Coverage

  1. My initial reaction is that I appreciate what CNN and other journalists are doing with social media. To say that they are just aggregating information we could all find is somewhat true, but also somewhat analogous to the fact that we could each go out and investigate any news story. I’m pretty adept at using social media, but I don’t follow any accounts that were posting original pictures or video from Haiti.

    I think CNN deserves some credit for finding that information quickly and putting it all in one place and taking the effort out of it for me. Furthermore, I don’t quite have the same pull as CNN when it comes to calling up interviews. There may not have been a lot of investigative journalism going on here, but there was some efficient use of resources.

    The people that think they could easily pull this information together are the social media addicts (like you and me). But it would take a lot of digging – digging I’m not willing to do unless I’m getting paid in most cases. The needs of CNN have shifted a bit and it benefits those with an in-depth understanding of the social web.

    1. >> advance search: haiti filter: links.

      Thats all I had to do to find more pictures, news and information on the earthquake than CNN had showed me in the half hour before it.

      Okay true, the average person may not think to do that…but think about how easy it would be to create a social media news site. As newspapers continue to fade, television loses viewers to the internet, etc, the internet will become an increasingly popular place to get your news. The service that CNN provides on television just won’t be needed anymore.

      1. The possibility is there…but it’s not being done right now (or maybe it’s in the works and you’ll see it soon). Like you mentioned, it’s easy to search social sites and CNN is taking advantage. I have no doubt that CNN could jump to do exactly what you are talking about any day they choose – so why do it when the TV audience is still there and the TV revenue is still huge?

        CNN has the information moderators in place, they’ll just have the opportunity to move their efforts online when the time is right.

        1. You’re not helping me take it to the man here Scott.

          What I’m talking about is the democratization of news and information. Where we once needed a reporter to get in the shit and tell us what’s going on, we’re getting that information straight from the source. The information is volunteered to the masses. CNN is finding the same information that we are! What makes CNN better than the average news consumer? If it comes down to organization of information, we don’t need mainstream media to do that for us. If it’s entertainment (anchors and reporters), well I dont know…but it seems that they’ve lost A LOT of their value.

  2. I can certainly see how some people would argue CNN is being lazy and not doing anything we can’t do, but I’d have to disagree. In a breaking news story such as Haiti, social media is really just a tool they can use to get information quicker and more efficiently.

    The “investigative journalism” that people may want can come later, once it’s safe to send people to the scene and some of the dust has settled. Personally, I consider pictures and personal accounts from people who were actually there are 10 times more powerful and interesting than a report from a journalist or pictures taken from their expensive cameras.

    So, I say props to CNN for being resourceful in their use of social media.

    1. “I consider pictures and personal accounts from people who were actually there are 10 times more powerful and interesting than a report from a journalist or pictures taken from their expensive cameras.”

      Exactly! And if all they’re doing is acting as a filter…we can pretty much automate that process.

      What if we replaced news anchors with information moderators, who just filter the social web using algorithms, pieces together the relevant information coming in, and shares it. Because even after the dust has cleared in Haiti, there will be 100 big expensive cameras there, but thousands of people with their own content, stories, and cameras…and we won’t need CNN to find it for us.

  3. I agree with Jackie and Scott. While their efforts and news might seem like unoriginal content, I think it’s great how they’re bringing in social media to keep us up-to-date on what’s going on. And that’s probably the safest thing to do right now, since the event happened not even 24 hours ago.

    Of course, they’ll send some anchors soon- most definitely Anderson Cooper- to Haiti to see what’s going on. But for now, I think what they’re doing is great and informative for everyone. I especially agree with this quote from Jackie, “I consider pictures and personal accounts from people who were actually there are 10 times more powerful and interesting than a report from a journalist or pictures taken from their expensive cameras.”

    Great topic though, David. Thanks for writing about this 🙂

    1. Okay but think about it this way. Soon (maybe one year, maybe 5 years), social information will be available and accessible to all. Who doesn’t use email today? That’s what’s going to happen with other social tools. So when everyone has access to information, and has the ability to filter and organize it using tools, why do we need CNN? When everyone becomes a reporter, sure, we’ll miss out on the really fake banter that goes on…but the important stuff, the news, won’t have to be spoon fed to us.

      1. That’s a great point, David. I guess the only thing I can add is that, while SM allows everyone to have access to info and essentially become “reporters,” sites/channels CNN and NYTimes will always be the first ones to “officially” report it and get the info to us. They are the ones who can go in depth and get those pictures, interviews, etc. We might be able to post some pictures ourselves, but news channels will ALWAYS have that info for us, and take it one step further.

        You have a valid point, one that has many arguments for/against, and a great convo going on here!

  4. David,

    Good points here. I agree with Scott that CNN deserves credit for finding the info quickly. I like the Twitter list they created for Haiti coverage.

    I don’t think they should rely on social, however. They definitely need to incorporate it into their reporting, but they still need to do some investigative journalism, to the extent that they can considering the conditions in Haiti right now.

    Providing no original content isn’t going to cut it.


  5. Hey David!

    I think that CNN is just trying to respond to its audience profile and not lose viewers. That being said, they are getting away from true investigative journalism.

    Just today, this article explained that 95% of new news is still from traditional media:

    However, new media plays an enormous role in magnifying and moving along the story. In this sense, maybe CNN is doing the right thing? Tracking the growth of the story itself actually becomes more of the news story than the story itself. If that makes sense.

    Good our bad, maybe we are at that much of a media meta state right now.

    1. Agreed that CNN could be doing the best thing possible right now…but my point is if the best thing possible is something that anyone can do easily on their computer, why do we need CNN?

      1. You’re right, we don’t “need” CNN. We don’t “need” radio, we don’t “need” the mediums and channels that we currently use to get our news and information.

        Social media absolutely has the capability to improve and or replace them all, but, in this case, people still like watching TV.

        Even if it is just regurgitated content that they could find on their computer, watching the TV for breaking news info is common practice, and will be until behaviors change.

        Now when TVs and cable boxes are better integrated with social technologies, the possibilities for CNN to add weight, influence, and value to the social stream is much more plausible.

        1. Yea there are two trends that I see happening. Not sure which will win (makes for a good post). Will tv get more social? Or will it simple move online?

          That, I think, will play a major role in the fate of mainstream media.

  6. I have to agree with Spinks on this one. What makes institutionalized news a valuable medium is the wealth of resources that are not available to to most people. Get a damn chopper in the air and give me a live feed!

    What I definitely DON’T need to see is coverage of a man literally sitting at a computer looking up pictures on the exact same websites as me, and making an unreasonable amount of money for it.

    Instead of providing real value, CNN decided to try and usurp the value that social media provides just by framing it in your tv show box instead of the magic internet box.

    Where are all the gung-ho reporters with pilots telling them its too dangerous when they yell “Get me closer dammit! We have to get this shot!”

    All I ask is for a helicopter and instead CNN gives me a roflcopter. fail CNN, epic fail

    1. Shit you agree with me? Maybe I need to re-evaluate my position. =P

      It is an interesting take though. The one thing that mainstream media has that the average person doesn’t, is a lot of money…and helicopters. If they’re not willing to spend more to bring better quality content, then they’re not really providing anything…

  7. As I watched the coverage last night, I was so impressed that CNN used Skype to conduct interviews, pulled pictures from social networks, etc. It painted a much clearer picture of the extreme devastation. It’s important for all of us to remember that to some extent, we live in a “social media bubble.” Like you, I was watching Twitter and FB last night as CNN was on the television. I’d imagine there were far more people checking sites like or and watching television to receive updates than performing Twitter searches. 🙂 Good for CNN, et al to use the tools at their disposal to deliver the news.

    That said, as we learned during the Iran protests, not all information that appears to be factual is credible. Media outlets do need to be responsible with their reporting — doing due diligence to verify information as much as possible, and revealing where facts/photots/etc are coming from.

    1. Once upon a time email was in a bubble. Now, everyone and their mother (and my mother) uses it.

      When social information becomes so easy to navigate and so widely accepted, will we still need mainstream media? Essentially we’d just need moderators to make sure the information is legit.

  8. David,

    I have to agree with most of the comments here. I was really thankful CNN put together some reports quickly last night using the resources they had.

    Frankly I was a little stunned that the stream seemed focused for more than an hour on Conan and his announcement yesterday while the news coming from Haiti on Twitter just got more and more dire. Having been in a disaster area (albeit many years ago) the first thing on anyone’s mind — even a news reporter — is to make sure family and friends are well. Then there’s the moment of shock and finally a realization you have to get back to your job.

    I am surprised that with the devastation we’re seeing, there is even the ability to tweet and to get broadcast reports out of the region. Hopefully, it will help with their recovery effort as well.

    Let’s focus on supporting the relief efforts and insuring people are taken care of here, and a little less on tearing down those who are trying to do their jobs in extremely trying circumstances.

    1. Mary,

      I certainly don’t want my writing of this post to seem like an attack on anyone, or to assume that I am more concerned with writing this post than helping the people in Haiti. I’ve already contributed my support and I’ve posted resources at the beginning of this post to ensure that the focus is on helping.

      I wrote this post because it was an interesting situation and one that I think is worthy of a discussion. As you can tell on my blog, I welcome those who disagree.

      I didn’t notice them focusing on Conan during this crisis…if they did that, that’s a horrible decision on it’s own.

      As I mentioned, this is a unique situation and the things I’m discussing may not be relevant elsewhere…but it was what happened here. And it made me think about the future of mainstream media.

  9. Good takeaway, David. You’re right: there is no point to broadcast media anymore. There hasn’t been for some time and it’s great to read you suggesting their time is coming to an impasse.

  10. David, this is a great post. This is a real-world example of enabling the people to help shape the news. While Haiti is an extreme circumstance, we’ll still need to make sure that the Tweets, Flickr images and whatnot are vetted in some way. Imagine if there was a hack day where folks talked about X in random spot Z and got a good buzz going. Hopefully the news media wouldn’t jump on it as gospel.

  11. Pingback: Five for Friday
  12. Pingback: AriWriter
  13. This is like suggesting Youtube has made Hollywood obsolete.

    Perhaps a refresher on the purpose and capabilities of media might serve here. I suspect you are under the belief that “media” is confined to “breaking news”. Also, the term mainstream media is poorly defined, and it is an imcomplete thought to group the reporting of disparate media bodies together. Different formats, different depth of information.

    5 years from now 10,000 twitter updates from frightened citizens about, say, an invasion of Scotland will not inform me of who the aggressors are, why they have invaded, what the aggressors want, how they defeated British security measures, if MI6 was infiltrated by the enemy, if the CIA warned our government of the threat. 10,000 twitter updates will tell me where the tanks are rolling and show me what the dead bodies look like. 5 Years from now the mainstream media may look different, but you and I and everyone else in society will want to know HOW and WHY things happen, the same as the last 4000 years of human history. As much as people may be excited about the popularity and potential of social medai, self-aggregation of FB and twitter posts will not satisfy a core–perhaps the core–human desire. Ever hear someone say of a film ‘The book is better’? Why is that?

    Besides the Constitutional sanctions of a free press, media will exist in this society due to the fact that human intellect includes and is perhaps based not only on the need to know, but the need to know MORE. You can’t get more immediate than Twitter, but the human need to know HOW and WHY things happen will not be satisfied by the obviously valuable yet limited social media platforms in place today.

    Professional media will exist in 10 years, make no mistake. Crowdfunded bloggers will exist but will remain a minority. It is expensive to find out HOW and WHY, and because you and I and your audience here will want to know HOW and WHY things happen, professional media will exist to satisfy that need. The majority of citizen journalists will not have the intelligence, resources, money, time, training, and desire to perform the task.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s