Disasters : journalist-free reporting? 1

Will mainstream journalists, who used to mediate between the public and government in disasters, be simply left out of the loop by social media?  In the twenty four hours during the peak of the flood crisis, Queensland police media had thirty nine million hits on their Facebook site. The public used their computers, laptops and smart phones to by-pass the conventional mass media and communicate directly with the authorities. In this year’s floods, Queensland local government and the state Police Service used Twitter and Facebook to disseminate flood warnings and information about local conditions.

To consider how things have changed, perhaps we should reflect for a moment on how the previous big flood in Brisbane, back in 1974, was covered. Back then there was no internet, no mobile phones, digital audio broadcast, broadband, fm radio or flexible live outside broadcast television capacity. Television did filmed stories. The authorities relied on newspapers and radio stations to spread the news. Journalists had telephones and shoe leather to collect it. I remember calling the Brisbane Tug company for any insights they might have on flood levels. The phone rang and rang until a clearly disgruntled office manager finally answered.

“Whats the flooding like down at Eagle Street?” I asked.

“Mate I had to wade waste deep through my office to get to this bloody phone,” he said. “I’m now standing on my desk”.

The police weren’t much better off, even though they were equipped with two way radios in their patrol cars. One copper told me (journalists still spoke to police in those days as opposed to police PR these days) that police cars had been rapidly sent out to check on flooding. Almost as quickly many had been stranded by the rising waters.

“There are coppers calling in from cars on little islands all over Brisbane,” he told me.

The floods in 2011 found the Queensland police much better equipped to get the message out. A case study released by the Police Force this month described their work as “world leading efforts in using social media for public engagement”.

Like similar organisations, the QPS has well-established processes for the drafting, clearance and release of information based largely, by necessity, on a reactive model. The QPS streamlined these processes during the disaster and the team organically turned to social media as the vehicle to reach the public and the media in the shortest time frame.

During this period, local government websites carrying information simply fell over from an overload of hits. Facebook proved to be a much more durable platform. In the twenty four hour period following the flash floods, the “likes” on the Queensland Police Facebook page increased from 17,000  to 100,000.

The Queensland Police said social media worked for them because:

  • It was immediate and allowed Police Media to proactively push out large volumes of information to large numbers of people ensuring there was no vacuum of official information
  • It provided access to immediate feedback and information from the public
  • Large amounts of specific information could be directed straight to communities without them having to rely on mainstream media coverage to access relevant details
  • The QPS Facebook page became the trusted, authoritative hub for the dissemination of information and facts for the community and media

Without reflecting on the peerless character of the contemporary Queensland Police force, I confess I have some concerns about Police media becoming the “trusted, authoritative hub” for the public. In the case of floods, you might expect that most of the information would seek to be accurate and unconstrained by policy. But what if this process were used for other information? Only a generation ago, Queensland government press releases preached law and order while the Police force leadership ran organised crime. Without appearing to having considered the consequences, it appears that Police PR is making a seamless transition from being an information provider to a publisher. As a government agency, is it doing it so without the rigorous editorial processes, codes of practice and information complaints procedures required of a government publisher like the ABC or SBS.

Social media can a be a quick way of distributing messages. But at its worst, can merely be a new source or rumour and disinformation. Its excesses can be an excuse by the unscrupulous for censorship or state intervention. I was in China in 2009, when Beijing  responded to riots by the Quiga national minority in the western provinces, by shutting down Facebook altogether. More recently in Britain, it was claimed that Facebook has been used to swarm youths torching London and other cities. There have been calls for a more organised police intervention in social media there. I reckon as a result of this, British journalists are in danger not just from rocks and firebombs, but being reduced to onlookers as the fight goes on in the streets and the internet.

You can’t necessarily rely on either party there to tell the truth.

Journalists are still needed to be watch dogs, checking the veracity of government, seeking the stories behind the news, in the public interest.

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