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Australia: Bushfire Media Feeding Frenzy


Social media and traditional media feeding frenzy during the Victorian bushfires. Is this what we want?

I’ve not blogged about  the bushfires because well, it felt like blogging for the sake of it. Increasing circulation of my blog because it’s a popular topic. Which has to be a yucky thing to do, right? But now that it’s calmed down a smidgen, and most people are over the hyperbole, perhaps I’m allowed a small post?

I mean, I could talk about Events and viral spiked nature of such activities.  I blogged about the Tsunami driving traffic back into the Australian Idol community. How the death of Steve Irwin melted servers down, both traditional newspapers and social media sites.

Mark Day from The Australian wrote about Twitter:

Twitterers aflutter as social media comes alive

It was also the first time, as far as I am aware, that a new technology was seriously field tested in Australia. The micro-blogging facility Twitter also showed a significant spike in traffic.

I could blog about Caroline Overington (@overingtonc) from The Australian twittering in 140 characters her stories.  She did a great job, for a newbie 😛

But some reporters didn’t do such a great job. The camera/microphone was shoved in the face of one little girl and the TodayTonight style of inquiry “how does it feel to see your house burnt down to the ground”?  Pretty standard fare:

There were too many questions of the “how do you feel” variety, too much emoting from reporters, too much “devastation” and “disaster”, too much once over lightly in the interviews with shell-shocked and traumatized people who kept saying they couldn’t find the words to describe what they had been through — and neither could the reporters.  (from Gawenda, former Editor-in-Chief, The Age on Crikey)

Part of me wanted to blog about the week I spent at Marysville as part of LAMP project.

Brunos Garden Marysville before fire

Bruno’s Garden photos from 2008 by GaryHayes

We did an ARG (augmented reality game) running around in teams at Bruno’s sculpture garden. Which is now gone. But what is my small loss of memories compared to the loss of lives? Can I insert myself in a nation’s grief? I promised myself I won’t write without passion – as misguided as it might be – so I won’t start now.

I’ve been approached by quite a few companies wanting to set up donation and fundraising systems for the bushfires.  (read @skribes The Business of Disaster Relief) I chose to point them to other people. I think I was second-guessing myself. Do I want to help these people, or do I want to be seen to be helping?  Passing those projects on, let’s me cop out of answering the harder questions.

At what point did you get the feeling enough! ? Did journalists overstep a line for you, with the “how do you feel now everything is gone?” questions? (answer: unprintable).  Did Public Relations at companies try to own the bushfires and turn them into a Do Good Works In The Name of Thy Brand or do you feel that is being cynical? Did the bloggers push personal connections “omg my friend’s friend little brother used to live in a house just like the one that burnt down!” – not necessarily for business or mercenary means but because communities connect through trauma and tragedy?

The most memorable and affecting survivor story, the one that I won’t quickly forget, was written by The Australian’s Gary Hughes who was an actual survivor and told his story in unadorned and understated prose. It was palpably authentic. (Crikey)

Many in the area were tweeting, but not many people have the sheer lunacy to blog through a crisis swirling around them.

I remember reading Riverbend – an Iraqi IT technician (woman) who blogged about the war – and after a while I stopped reading. Just stopped. I checked back after about 8 months and she had been evacuated out to Syria. I felt guilty – social media by nature brings about relationship abandonment issues of guilt and loss and anger and disappointment – but what can you do? I remember reading that the firefighters wouldn’t talk to the media:

On the other hand, as the media’s blanket coverage of these people stories recedes, some of those survivors who have become the “faces” of this disaster, will have to cope with media abandonment because that’s what inevitably will happen. One day, they will no longer be sought out by journalists and camera crew. One day their stories will no longer be of such intense media interest. Journalists move on. In the end, the relationship was all about getting a story.

Editors and news producers need to be aware of this and need to work out ways of “staying with the story”. This will be increasingly hard to do because most newspapers, most newsrooms are being relentlessly slimmed down through redundancies, voluntary and not so voluntary. Chances are, most media won’t easily manage to stay on this story. I fear that those people whose stories we told will ultimately feel their contact with journalists was a rotten experience. And the public we are meant to serve may not feel we have served them well.

In a way, these past few days, while no doubt difficult and life-affecting for the journalists who covered the fires and their aftermath, have been the easy part of covering this disaster. Staying on the story, asking all the hard questions about what happened and why, committing resources and space to a story that will offer ever diminishing returns in terms of ratings and circulation, that will be the hard part of covering what has happened in those towns and villages in Victoria in recent days. That hard part starts now.

That hard part starts now. That goes for you too, bloggers. And Twitterers.

Laurel Papworth

Named by Forbes™ Magazine in the Top 50 Social Media Influencers globally, named Head of Industry, Social Media (Marketing Magazine™) and in the Power150 Media bloggers (AdAge™). CERT IV Training and Assessment certified trainer (Diplomas and Certificates etc) Adult Education. Laurel has manager Facebook Pages for Junior Masterchef, Idol, Big Brother etc. and have consulted on private online communities for banks Westpac, not for profits UNHCR & governments in SE Asia. Lecturer, social media, University of Sydney for 10 years and Laurel has 11,000 online students. Laurel Papworth personally connects to 6 million followers online and has taught around 100,000 people in the last 10 years how to be social media managers.

6 thoughts on “Australia: Bushfire Media Feeding Frenzy

  1. RT @SilkCharm Bushfires & Media http://twurl.nl/1a1v7w (blog) ALL media – inc. bloggers & twitters (Social) Media Abandonment covered

  2. Another angle is my own Crikey piece, Twitter: enabling the new global rubberneckers.

    And, if you want to take another tangential journey, there’s a report today that vigilante-minded folks have published the identity of the suspected arsonist online, unaware of such legal niceties as suppression orders and contempt of court laws. Last year I wrote about this in the context of another legal case.

    Stilgherrian’s last blog post..Conroy announces filter-trial ISPs and clams shut

  3. Hi Laurel. I did post something last week (how to help and a second thank you post) and I really, really hope I didn’t offend or disrespect anyone affected by the fires by doing so. Writing a post based on need seemed to be a good idea at the time, because friends and organisations (not on Twitter) were trying to figure out ways to help. I saw some innovative ways other people were helping out, and I simply wanted to share some of that information. Email them often or blog it and make a couple of updates?

    The last thing I felt like blogging about last week was my usual flippant ramblings. I was deeply saddened. Yes, I did turn the TV off most of the week because I felt some journos were being too intrusive (like the examples you describe – shoving a microphone in a tent to wake up sleeping 18month old)and it upset me too much after hearing some of the stories from friends in bushfire affected areas. I just felt that providing a quick information source for positive action would be a good thing. My bad???

  4. I was in country Victoria for the bushfires Laurel; you’re right when you say no one in their right might would be twittering through a disaster, but plenty of people had their handy cams out! Such a shame though that the government and telcos don’t have a reliable mobile Internet system in place to give better, more accurate warnings to people on the run, or away from their keyboards…

    1. Also a shame is that Twitter is supposed to be a social network on the mobile – it’s APIs mean it’s most used on the move (in the US and Europe). We don’t have a service provider set up anymore, so we can’t SMS in and out locally (I remember when we did, I got SMS updates every few minutes in some cases).

      Imagine Twitter as a purely mobile social network, and the power to sign up and get updates from all sorts of fire observers.

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