On earthquakes, twitter, apples and oranges

aka “I survived an earthquake and all you get is this lousy blog post”

So yea, I tweeted my way through an earthquake yesterday afternoon. Well, that’s not entirely true. Despite the claims of some, I didn’t feel the rumble and immediately reach for my iPhone. But I was sitting at my desk when the shaking started and once things subsided I, like many others, immediately flipped over to TweetDeck to find out if anyone else had their world rocked.

As has become the norm, word of the quake spread quickly over Twitter, followed in short order by the requisite deluge of tweets about how Twitter had, once again, kicked the mainstream media’s ass. Among the dozens of tweets of the sort that I saw, I thought Ottawa’s David Hicks did the best job of making the point:

Thanks to the earthquake, I can measure the Speed of News. Twitter: 20 seconds Radio: 20 minutes Television: 35 minutes Newspaper: Tomorrow.

Toronto-based PR guy Dave Fleet repeated the assertion that traditional media got beat as part of his impressively-quick analysis of the social media chatter about the earthquake.

Yesterday afternoon at 1:41pm EDT, a 5.0 magnitude earthquake shook Quebec and Ontario and it looks like people ran to Twitter instead of diving for cover. Once again, social media beat traditional media to the punch (as if this is news nowadays), although mainstream outlets were quick to report the news shortly thereafter.

Hard to argue, really. I was among those collecting and sharing information on Twitter. Thanks to people in my network, I knew where to find information on the quake (interestingly, it was on the US geological site, not the Canadian one. It crashed).  I knew that a lot of workers downtown were evacuated from their buildings, I knew it was felt in Montreal and Toronto… not bad for a few minute’s work.

News or journalism?

So did Twitter “break” the story? Well, people on Twitter probably did, at least for a lot of people. And obviously Twitter played a key role in people sharing their experiences and checking on loved ones. No argument there.

But does that mean Twitter beat the mainstream press? Only if you think news = journalism.

People on Twitter did a great job telling people the bare facts. Those were quickly followed by jokes, reactions and other things that were more entertaining than informing. As it should. Twitter is a network of people. People like to laugh and share stories.

Meanwhile, the “defeated” media were busy doing journalism. Both the Sun and the Citizen have comprehensive quake sections today, with little things like explanations for how earthquakes work; context for the size and scope of the quake and its damage; photo galleries, reader stories; videos etc. The local CBC outlet found an expert who pointed out that the immediate reaction of most, running outside, was maybe not the best approach.

It’s time to stop comparing apples to oranges. Real journalism is more than reporting that something happened. It’s about context. Detail. Depth and breadth. Twitter and other social channels will always be able to beat traditional media to the punch. But that’s only a small part of what goes into journalism.

The mainstream media didn’t get beat yesterday. They did their job.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber


  1. The thing I loved about the ‘quake? I couldn’t text my husband (I was in Ottawa, he was in Gatineau), but I could get texts from a friend in Vancouver (who provided me with the first info on the quake). Rich and I kept in touch by sending messages through her. Gotta love new technology 😀
    .-= Hey, you should check out Jocelyn´s last blog ..Cruise Days 8, 9 & 10 — Aruba, At Sea and San Juan =-.

  2. Great post Joe!

    I didn’t reach for my iPhone, I was already on it. And honestly, my Joe and I thought that the cats were acting up on the shelf when the earthquake actually happened. It was only after some discussion that we realized what may have happened, and joked about it. And *then* I checked Twitter.

  3. Hey Joe, enjoyed this post. I was posting bare-bones quake info to OttawaStart’s Twitter feed — like the link to the US Geological Survey’s web page with info about the quake. That was probably the most RT’d post I’ve ever made on Twitter — it was probably one of the first “official” confirmations that a quake hit Ottawa. People seemed to want “official confirmation” that what they felt was an earthquake.

    The other interesting thing on Twitter was the amount of “I heard that..” or “I think that…” or “Somebody posted on Facebook that…” type of tweets. They were kind of like Jason Spezza trade rumours — unless they’re from a primary source it was really hard to trust them.

    So thumbs up to the Citizen, Sun & CTV in Ottawa for quick work getting reporters into the field & confirming facts.

    Anyhow, long story short — intertesting to see how “citizen journalism” (ie tweets) complimented traditional journalism. Good thing we have both available.

  4. Great post Joe! I like your analysis on the media vs. social networks argument.

    It’s kind of interesting that as a society we have developed into this “I want information NOW!” kind of attitude, and feel that traditional media “fails” when it doesn’t deliver that.

    Then when it does, and is wrong, we crucify it anyways (see Lightfoot, Gord under People Who are Not Really Dead).

    Traditional media is at a crossroads, yes, but we also have to remember what the media’s true job is. It’s not just to break stories instantly, but to also provide analysis, thought and facts on what is happening in our world.

    Like you said, Twitter is just a network of people. It’s no different than working in an office building. No doubt everyone who was evacuated from their workplaces were standing outside discussing the earthquake — we’d never say they “broke the news first.”

  5. Well said. “First” is not necessarily “better.” They’re two different subject areas. My hope would be that as the public and media realize this, they let Twitter play “firsties” while journalists get to invest more time on in-depth analysis and long-form pieces in traditional and online media platforms.
    .-= Hey, you should check out Andrew´s last blog ..“Meeting 258/365″ by tf103chl (Chris Leboe) =-.

  6. Joe,

    In an ever faster pace of life we have come to expect ‘real time’ news and Twitter is the current ‘go-to’ place. I was happy to be able to confirm the event for those around me as we all looked for an explanation.

    Deeper analysis takes time to write and publish and I agree that there is still a place for that in today’s media market.

    My fav quotes of the day:

    @thornley RT @kylemcinnes: Ottawa government buildings evacuated. Productivity unaffected. #earthquake #smgov

    @unknown Quebec is finally separating! #earthquake

  7. Pingback: Robert

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