Social Media & the Haiti Disaster: How the Social Boom Has (And Hasn’t) Changed the News Media

Izzy Forman is the Digital Publicity Manager at 360i, where she is responsible for leading a team of digital publicists that builds and nurtures relationships with online influencers (bloggers, editors, forum moderators and fan site creators) to advocate for a brand and its products and services.

Monday’s panel on the role of social media in light of the recent Haiti earthquake focused on a number of ways that social media has (and hasn’t) impacted the how the news media functions during times of crisis. The panel did not shy away from the magnitude of the tragedy in Haiti and covered a lot of ground in the session.

The discussion was led by:

Moderator: Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and senior technology advisor, The Sunlight Foundation


  • Ann Curry, news anchor for NBC’s Today Show | @anncurry
  • Rob Mackey, staff writer The New York Times, The Lede blog | @RobertMackey
  • Erik Parker, journalist who was in Haiti when the earthquake struck and used social networks to send images, video, tweets | @theparkerreport
  • Jason Cone, communications director, Doctors Without Borders | @MSF_USA

From the range of stories told and questions asked throughout the afternoon, here are a few points that helped clarify the evolving relationship between social media and news reporting.

A New Frontier in Crisis Communications

The afternoon began with anecdotes from panelists Jason Cone (Doctors Without Borders) and Ann Curry (NBC News) about how they used Twitter to mobilize aid in the first days after the disaster in Port au Prince.

In the context of Twitter, their story unfolded like this: A Doctors Without Borders’ plane couldn’t land. Curry then saw their complaint via Twitter and tweeted a request to the military to let the doctors land. A reader sent Curry the official handle of the US Air Force via Twitter, who subsequently tweeted at them to let the plane land. Finally, Doctors Without Borders landed in Haiti.

This story illustrates the power of concerned citizens (the reader that tweeted the handle), the massive community created by social media, and the meaning of news spread in real time — but it’s only part of the story.

While the anecdote illustrates some of the most obvious benefits of social media, it also reminded me that, at least in the foreseeable future, traditional methods of crisis communications still apply.  Even though social media informed Curry of the problem and helped her to get the word out, the issue was ultimately resolved when she contacted US Military leaders directly by utilizing her official relationships as a news reporter.

View this session courtesy of LiveStream:

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The Veracity of a Tweet

As news breaks in real-time and journalists report less from far off places, it makes sense that the opportunity to get information via social networks continents away would be compelling. Yet a story Curry shared about getting information from a Haitian humanitarian-turned-citizen-journalist via Twitter provoked questions from other panelists and the audience about the reliability of such reporting methods.

How does a reporter effectively vet an online source in a breaking news crisis? How does a journalist determine if a minute-by-minute eyewitness account contains a hidden agenda? And how can a story be confirmed or denied without cameras on the ground?

The consensus on the panel seemed to be that effective journalists treat their social media sources just like any other sources — they vet the best that they can, and use source info responsibly and cautiously, like they would do if interviewing people at the scene of a crime.

Curry’s embrace of the opportunity to share breaking news, respond to feedback, and receive real-time information directly from people on the ground, via Twitter, seems indicative of her commitment to getting the most accurate, up-to-date information she can deliver. And while the rules governing reporters and their @ sources are not yet ironed out, social media is one of many very useful tools in reporting breaking news.

Ultimately, the concerned, motivated and tweeting citizen-journalists in Haiti were valuable resources that allowed outlets to report stories and provide information that they never would have known about in the days before Twitter.