Citizen journalists take spotlight covering extreme weather, Moore tornado

By Bridgit Bowden
This YouTube video of the May 20 Moore, Okla.,
tornado was captured from a car.  
From the Joplin, Mo., tornado to the Occupy movement to the Boston bombings, we've all learned how powerful citizen journalism can be.  Social media and smartphones have made it easy for people outside of the news business to share information, pictures and video on a wide scale.  Citizen journalists often get news out before professional news organizations can.

Extreme weather is one of citizen journalism's opportunities to shine.  Last week's tornado in Moore, Okla., is a perfect example.  According to the New York Times, when rescuers were searching through rubble for trapped people at the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School, they "begged everyone to be quiet — helicopters, trucks, ambulances — so they could hear even the faintest cry." Many of the first images and video we saw were pulled from social media.
What's more, seven of the top 10 tornado videos on YouTube were shot by people not affiliated with news stations, according to the Pew Research Center.  The one below had almost 600,000 views within the first day:

Moore isn't the only example of social media playing a critical role when the weather turns ugly.  Although he isn't a citizen journalist per se, New York Times writer Brian Stelter used Twitter and texting to cover the early aftermath of the 2011 Joplin tornado.  "Looking back, I think my best reporting was on Twitter," he said in a blog post recapping his experience.

So, what happens to the professional "storm chasers" of the past?  You know, like the characters Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton play in the 1996 movie "Twister"?  Storm chaser Tim Baker, who shot this video from inside the 2009 Kirksville, Mo., tornado, started filming storms 18 years ago and has noticed many more fellow chasers joining him in the last three years, according to The Huffington Post.

But this begs the question -- is it worth it? Are citizens compromising their safety to take pictures for Twitter or videos for YouTube? "Just because you can take a picture of this twister coming at you, should you?" Baker asks.

The media industry is involved in an ongoing conversation about who counts as a journalist.  Do you have to be a professional?  What about bloggers?  What about regular people, standing outside filming tornadoes?  It's important that the news industry take advantage of the possibilities citizen journalism allows.  But it's also important that citizen journalists understand the real responsibilities and consequences of covering these events.    

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