Citizen journalism, Instagram, and #Sandy

November 5, 2012

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the Hudson River. Janis Krums from Sarasota, Florida broke the story, using his iPhone to post the first photo of the floating plane on Twitter. Half an hour later, MSNBC interviewed him on live television. Twitpic had “arrived.”

In the three years since, people have turned to Twitter to share and receive real-time news about the Arab Spring, the earthquake in Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and countless natural disasters. With today’s leanly staffed newsrooms, it is impossible for reporters to be on the ground every time news hits, but smartphones have enabled bystanders to document events as they happen, and these crowdsourced photos often make their way into mainstream media outlets hungry to share the view from the scene.

When Hurricane Sandy hit last week, Twitter became a sort of lifeline for people in its path, and those watching from afar. During the 24 hours before the #frankenstorm made landfall, there were more than 7 million tweets. While Twitpic remained a popular photo sharing tool, Sandy marked the ascension of Instagram.  There were 10 photos Instagrammed per second during the storm, both real and fake., created during Hurricane Irene, reappeared during Sandy to provide a visual snapshot of the scene. News outlets like TIME Magazine embraced Instagram as the most efficient way to find photos and deliver them to readers.

What does this trend mean for nonprofit organizations? For one thing, it offers a model for acquiring photos when budgets are tight. For example, our partners at California Coastkeeper Alliance asked members to help document California’s seasonal “king tides” to help raise awareness about sea level rise.  When Resource Media was working to spread the word about toxic lake algae this summer, we turned to Twitter to find photos from around the country for a slideshow and page that helped communicate the gravity of the situation to reporters at Grist and ABC.

The rise of citizen photojournalism also creates an opening for nonprofits to help document real world impacts of environmental threats from fracking to climate change. Whether you are capturing professional images or smartphone pics, the hardest part is getting them seen. Twitter and Facebook are great sharing vehicles, but the photos should also be stored online where journalists and other audiences can find them. Instagram is ideal for smartphone photos, but we like Flickr to organize and share more professional images. The Flickr album we created for International Bird Rescue during the Gulf oil spill was accessed nearly 300,000 times, and generated coverage on CNN, NBC, and the Associated Press. To maximize exposure, be sure to include keyword optimized descriptions, titles, and tags.

Want to strategize about imagery for your projects? We’re all ears!