News organizations find it highly useful to seek out information and images from people who have personally witnessed breaking news situations. However, they’re also increasingly plucking these call-outs for eyewitness contributions from social media channels.
Examples include shared images and information from the Nepal earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima nuclear accident, Superstorm Sandy, Andy Carvin’s Twitter coverage of the Arab Spring,30 and WNYC's crowdsourced photos of shoveled show during the 2010 New York City blizzard.31
At the Watershed Post, a digital-first news website in New York’s Catskills region, co-founders Julia Reischel and Lissa Harris made national news in 2011 when Hurricane Irene barreled through, flooding entire villages, washing out highways and bridges, and cutting off communications. “The only way to keep an eye on our coverage area was to have a distributed network of people feeding us information,” Harris said, adding that official sources were largely absent on the communications front. Similarly, as Hurricane Irene was zeroing in on New Jersey, urban planner Justin Auciello launched Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a Facebook page that crowdsourced information not only to produce news, but also to come to the aid of local communities.With user input, Auciello reported who needed help, where people could get water or generators, where they could find their lost dogs, and how they could find family members. The page went from 20,000 likes in its first four days to 65,000 some 14 months later, October 2012, on the eve of Superstorm Sandy. JSHN now has 225,000 Facebook likes and more than 10,000 Twitter followers. Eyewitness crowdsourcing is also taking root in the area of citizen-science journalism. In 2011, when climate journalist Julia Kumari Drapkin found herself struggling to connect esoteric scientific results with on-the-ground topics that could engage local communities, crowdsourcing emerged as a way to bridge the gap. “It’s difficult to scale down from global time and space to any individual person’s story or local community’s experiences,” Drapkin said. “It wasn’t like I wanted to be a crowdsourcer. It was more like, ‘This is a problem that I think the crowd could help solve.”’ She did this through her Colorado-based KVNF public radio venture iSeeChange.32 Drapkin collected local observations and solicited community questions about environmental changes people were seeing, then brought in scientists to answer those questions. Some of these conversations foreshadowed large-scale natural events. For instance, when a local fire department official shared observations about fire season beginning earlier and lasting longer, scientists and researchers corroborated the official’s insights, which he shared three months before the epic 2012 Colorado wildfire season.
“A lot of science disregards the anecdote,” Drapkin said. “However, when you’ve lived in the same place for your whole life and you can say, ‘Hey, I’ve never see this before,’ more often than not those moments are opportunities to bring data to researchers and wonder if it isn’t something to pay attention to.”