The coverage of the Mumbai attacks offered the bizarre and increasingly frequent spectacle: the news media reporting on its inadequacy. Within minutes of the first attacks, on-the-scene reports started appearing on Twitter, Flickr and citizen-media sites like NowPublic.com. Unencumbered by expensive cameras, skeptical editors or professional ethics, citizen journalists filled the breech during the early hours of the crisis, "while there was a vacuum of official information from government sources or from mainstream media outlets still struggling to understand the extent of the attacks," according to a somewhat breathless New York Times piece yesterday.
How fast was the crowd? I was in the office on Wednesday afternoon, sifting through a mountain of paperwork and generally ignoring my news feeds. "Jesus," exclaimed Noah Shachtman, from his cubicle here at Wired's New York offices. "Terrorist attacks in Mumbai." Less than an hour later Noah published this post to Wired's Danger Room blog, noting that dozens of videos (there are now hundreds) had been uploaded to YouTube, a GoogleMap showing attack sites had been created and blood donors could find out which blood bank to go to on Twitter. Also noted: The fact that Wikipedia was transformed from a reference site to a one-stop shop for the latest updates, a news aggregator nonpariel. (The page now runs over 6,000 words and contains 226 citations.) How fast was the crowd? This chart (courtesy of tweetip) shows the spike in "#Mumbai terror" tweets in the hours following the first shots.
What's interesting isn't so much that people used social media to report on a tragic, rapidly unfolding calamity. What's interesting is how commonplace that phenomenon has become. It characterized the coverage of the Asian tsunami, the London bombings, Hurricane Katrina, the Kenyan political unrest, to cite a few examples. It's become institutionalized to the point where the New York Times had sent out a "call for eyewitness accounts" by 5 PM on Wednesday. That's a good thing, because having established that citizen journalism, unlike Santa Claus, actually exists—that it's feasible, and that amateurs can add enormous value to the coverage of an event—we can move on to critiques of its actual usefulness.
I think we're going to see just such a crique playing out in the next several days, but a few excellent posts have already emerged that effectively problematize the simplistic (and unhelpful) "look-ma-we-beat-CNN-at-their-own-game" back-patting that floods the blogosphere after any one of these calamities. My hope is that we're entering an era of Crowdsourcing 2.0 when it comes to journalism.
Writing on the Made By Many blog, Tim Malbon asks if the coverage of the attacks on Twitter wasn't less a "crowdsourced version of the news" than "an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, re-tweets and re-re-tweets"? (He has an excellent follow-up as well, asking how we might create a filtered version of twitter, to keep out the "twats.")
Another valuable source of critical commentary comes from the social media scholar, Gaurav Mishra. He's created a "work-in-progress case study" of how citizen journalists covered the Mumbai attacks, and as far as I can tell it's unrivaled in terms of depth and critical analysis. More, I'm sure, is to come.