How the internet is changing how natural disasters are covered

As recently as a year or two ago, coverage of a natural disaster simply meant a reporter in a wet slicker being whipped around by gale-force winds.

Today’s news audience demands immediate and hyperlocal coverage and the internet is here to give it to them. A recent study shows that people are more likely to turn to social networks like Twitter and Facebook than traditional news sources in the event of an emergency.

There have already been a number of blogs created exclusively for coverage of Hurricane Gustav, which was only on the radar a little over a week ago. These include the Hurricane Gustav Online Newsroom created by the Red Cross and Hurricane Gustav Resources maintained by OneStorm.

However, we are now living in a digital world where even blogs can’t beat the immediacy of Twitter. There already a number of feeds on the microblogging service dedicated to Gustav, including news from the Red Cross, the SunHerald based in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and the Chicago Tribune’s GustavReporter.

Because of the fast breaking news happening on Twitter, major news media have already started to reference incoming tweets on their broadcasts, as evidenced in this story by Mike Elgan. You can follow updates about the hurricane by searching Twitter for “gustav” or joining the conversation by including the hastag #gustav in your tweets.

As recently as a year ago, many news outlets were reluctant to add their content to public video sharing sites like YouTube, but now those mainstream organizations are often ahead of the pack. The Associated Press has already posted a number of video clips to YouTube, which fit right in with the citizen journalist-created videos that exist on the site.


The way to show the path of a hurricane on a news broadcast used to be a relatively simple graphic that highlighted a large swirling cloud on a colorful map. The net has extended the possibility of what this map can be. MSNBC’s Hurricane Tracker is a user-friendly interactive map that not only shows where Gustav is headed, but a host of other data to accompany it. The Palm Beach Post also has a Gustav tracking map, this one showing the hurricane as it relates to the southeast portion of the US.

CNN’s iReport has also made use of maps, but in a different way. Photos and video from “iReporters,” or citizen journalists who are in the middle of the storm, are geotagged and posted on the map where others can view by area and leave comments.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel has gone all out and provided every type of news coverage imaginable, including video, a variety of maps, constantly updated blogs, archival footage and more, in addition to its traditional print stories.

Other useful online tools that likely wouldn’t have existed a few years ago include a Google Maps mashup of evacuation destinations and the HurriCam, a live streaming webcam stationed in southernmost Louisiana. And because average Joes are no longer content to sit around and wait for mainstream media to report on the news that matters to them, the Ning-based social network Gustav Information Center has been setup to provide a forum for Hurricane Gustav-related news. Credentialed reporters and citizen journalists alike will also find the social network Storm Tools for Journalists incredibly useful.

Finally, there has been a recent trend in newsrooms to provide links to organizations that provide aid to those devastated by natural disasters. After the recent cyclone in Myanmar, many online news sites like the New York Times streamlined the donation process.