Citizen Journalists Provide Better Early Warning

Are citizen journalists playing an increasingly important role in documenting violent conflict and human rights violations—particularly in terms of early warning? I chose Kenya as a case study to assess the role of citizen journalists in crisis environments as compared to the mainstream media. My colleagues Kate Brodock, Briana Kramer and I used event-data analysis to code reports of violent and peaceful events as documented by about a dozen citizen journalist bloggers between December 27, 2007 and January 27, 2008.

We did the same for mainstream media, ranging from print media (national newspapers) to radio and television programs. I also included the Ushahidi data because I wanted to carry out a three way comparison between mainstream news media, citizen journalism and a dedicated crowdsourcing platform.

We then created a Google Earth layer to visualize the data over time and space. Below is a YouTube video I created of the animation (for slower Internet connections). Here is the Google Earth layer (KMZ). The data can also be visualized on Google Maps here.

Yellow icon = mainstream news reports; Blue icon = citizen journalism blogs; Green icon = Ushahidi reports.

Our preliminary findings:

  • Mainstream media reported actual death count before citizen journalists; however, on many accounts, mainstream media did not report on incidents leading to actual deaths, i.e., early warning signs;
  • Citizen journalist reports and Ushahidi reports did not overlap geographically with mainstream media reports;
  • Citizen journalists tended to report as soon as violence started, well before mainstream media;
  • The number of comments on citizen journalist blogs increased during the 30-day period, or during particular periods of violence;
  • The comment section was also used as a medium for real-time updating;
  • Many citizen journalist bloggers used real-time updates sent to them via SMS, primarily from rural areas;
  • Citizen journalism reports declined after the launch of Ushahidi;
  • Ushahidi reports document an important number of violent events not reported by the mainstream media and citizen journalists;
  • Contrary to news media and citizen journalist reports, Ushahidi data always had specific location information;
  • Ushahidi reports also covered a wider geographical area than both mainstream news and citizen journalist bloggers.

For further information on our project’s methodology and sources, please see this short powerpoint presentation (PDF) which we have also uploaded on Slideshare. For more on crisis mapping, please see this page. For additional information on the role of digital technology during Kenya’s post election violence, see this narrative-based analysis (PDF) by my two colleagues Josh Goldstein and Juliana Rotich.

We look forward to receiving as much feedback as possible so we can improve our methodology and analysis in future case studies. We’re especially keen to have others interpret the dynamics displayed in the animation above. In the meantime, please contact me if you’d like to join the team and contribute to our next case study, which will be of Georgia.

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4 responses to “Citizen Journalists Provide Better Early Warning

  1. Dear Patrick,
    Forgive any misunderstandings as I am just taking my first steps into the world of EWS. I am certain that local stakeholders must be involved in monitoring, but I am interested in your thoughts on impartiality. Given the problems in monitoring that you have suggested on blogs/sms, how does a system like Ushahidi confirm reports?
    I have read that some EWS with local stakeholders use a double confirmation method of trained personnel. Submitting of conflict/cooperation reports from untrained/unaccountable sources could be used politically to instigate further violence? (I recognise that current EWS with external experts can be politicized easily as well)
    Thank you for your insightful blog.

  2. Dear Ben,

    Many thanks for your comments and question. You’re absolutely right, the issue of “data validation” or “quality control” is really important.

    There are several (complementary) ways to approach the challenge. First, in the process of hiring field monitors, you’d want to interview everyone carefully to make sure they’ll remain impartial in their reporting. Second (particularly if taking a crowdsourcing approach), you’d want to carry out a double confirmation. This is what Ushahidi did during the election crisis in Kenya. They’d either contact the person who reported the event or validate the information if the mainstream media reported on the same event.

    In any event, this remains an ongoing challenge. When text messages were being used to communicate hate speech during the Kenyan elections, the government considered shutting the SMS network down. The main company, SafariCom resisted, and instead used the SMS network to broadcast messages of peace and restraint.

    One question I’ve heard others pose is whether communication technology can be designed in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of communicating hate speech.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  3. Dear Patrick,

    I guess I had in my mind the Syrian Government’s use of mobile sms in 2005 when I wrote my comment. New media creates new potential and problems for mass mobilization.

    In terms of crowdsourcing, I see several problems that need to be answered. Professional journalism has (or should have!) rules about fairness and impartiality in reporting events that a citizen journalist/crisis reporter may not heed. The HQ processing the information may not understand the local context of the information or the risk of crisis escalation that they are creating. Complementary approaches are a good solution as you say and I believe strongly in your comment on broadcasting reconciliation or peace messages.

    I am not arguing that locally led responses are wrong, Darfur is a good example of how mobile phones can keep displaced people in touch and reduce the risk of further violence, but there are concerns with ‘civil journalism’ in such an unstable/uncertain environment. Georgia is a good example, the following is a good article on the crisis from openDemocracy.net

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/after-disaster-information-for-life

    Thanks again!

  4. Thanks for your comments and link, Ben.

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