Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? – Chapter from “Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book”

Communicating Disasters

“Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. Today’s ICT tools enable us to be smart and strategic in gathering and disseminating information. But there is no silver bullet that can fix everything. We must never forget how even high tech (and high cost) solutions can fail at critical moments. We can, however, contain these risks by addressing the cultural, sociological and human dimensions – aspects that this book explores in some depth and detail, from the perspective of both media professionals and disaster managers.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke, in his foreword to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book

I was invited to contribute a chapter on citizen journalism and disaster response for Communicating Disasters: As Asia Pacific Resource Book published by the UNDP and TVEAP in December 2007.I am glad I agreed – the final book is one of the best I’ve read on media and communications for disaster preparedness and response, with contributions from leading authors that are personal, provocative, challenge conventional wisdom and offer vital insights into the role and practice of journalism and media in covering and responding to disasters and other crises.In my own essay, I introduce the idea of “victim journalism”, who by “palm-grown” content enabled by the increasing footprint of and access to ICTs, have more agency to secure their needs in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis. On the other hand, I also point to significant challenges of citizen journalism:

like any other tool, [citizen journalism] can [be] used for purposes they were not in-tended for, misused or only used for personal gain. There is no guarantee that images and photos from disasters produced by victims in the thick of it will galvanise attention and support.

However, I go on to note that:

Disasters are about resilience – how we pick ourselves up after a human tragedy and slowly return to normalcy. ICTs help us understand how we can help communities spring back to life after a disaster. They humanise a tragedy, the scale of which may be too large to otherwise comprehend. Citizen journalists, flawed as they may be as individuals, are nevertheless tremendously powerful as a group. They have the potential to capture, over the long term, a multiplicity of rich and insightful perspectives on disasters not often covered by the traditional media.

A note of thanks to Nalaka Gunawardene, a co-editor of the publication, who in response to an early draft said that since my chapter named and shamed countries, including Sri Lanka, for their deplorable human rights and media freedom record (that I submit vitiates the potential of citizen journalism) it may not pass muster with the hyper-sensitivities of the UNDP, that funded the publication.

I was happy to note that the final publication was unchanged from my draft.

Read my chapter in full here and visit the TVEAP site for updates on when the entire book will be published online under a Creative Commons License.
Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book160 pages; 17.3 cm x 24.4 cm; 19 chapters + 7 appendicesPublished: December 2007

4 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? – Chapter from “Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book”

  1. Hi Sanjana,

    Many thanks for your kind remarks of the book, which is enriched by your chapter. I have to also thank you for being the first of our invited contributors to send in the chapter, ahead of schedule, and for your patience with us in the months that followed while we were gathering and editing other chapters.

    Many years ago, my friend (now international expert on terrorism and widely published academic author) Rohan Gunaratna told me that writing a book was like waging a small war. (I agree – I once edited one of his early books, one of my claims to fame!). I don’t normally use military metaphors, but I can’t resist extending Rohan’s analogy to say that compiling a multi-author book is a bit like waging a war with a coalition of the willing!

    – Nalaka Gunawardene

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